METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Saints receiver Michael Thomas is encouraging NFL defensive backs, analysts and fans alike to freely express any doubts they may have about whether he can regain the record-setting form of his last healthy season in 2019.
Doubters are “good for the game,” Thomas said after the sixth practice of Saints training camp on Tuesday. “I like it.”
In other words, the proverbial chip on Thomas’ shoulder “is very big,” he said. “It grows every day, I feel like, but that’s a good thing about this game. You get to go out there and you get to attack someone.”
At the same time, the 30-year-old Thomas said there’s only so much he can do to avoid the types of injuries that have sidelined him for all but 10 regular season games during the past three seasons. And that’s because the two-time former All-Pro out of Ohio State is not about to abandon the physical style of play that served him so well during his first four NFL seasons, when he caught 470 passes for 5,512 yards and 32 touchdowns.
“I go hard. So, sometimes, you know, you might get injured going hard,” said Thomas, who set an NFL record for receptions in a season with 149 in 2019, when the regular season consisted of 16 games — one fewer than now.
Thomas was never the fastest receiver on the field even before the ankle and foot injuries that hampered him the previous three seasons. What has made him exceptional was his ability to keep his muscle-bound, 6-foot-3, 212-pound frame between defenders and arriving passes — as well as his ability to reach out in front of himself and snatch hard-thrown balls.
Thomas also was a willing run-blocker, and it was on one such play that he initially hurt his ankle during the 2020 season opener. He came back to play hurt in six more regular season games that season, plus two playoff games. But early in the 2021 offseason, he initially put off surgery in hopes of being able to complete his rehabilitation without it, only to change course and head to the operating room shortly before training camp.
Thomas initially came back strong last season, catching three touchdown passes in three games before a foot injury ended that campaign.
Thomas’ absence was a difficult blow for the Saints to absorb in the early years of a five-year, $96.3 million contract extension the star receiver signed in 2019. But Thomas agreed this offseason to a new one-year, incentive-laden contract worth between $10 million and $15 million.
Although Thomas did limited work during voluntary offseason practices, he did not begin practicing fully again until training camp began last week. Since then, however, Thomas said he has taken snaps at full speed without reservation.
“Once I passed my physical and they gave me the green light and they checked all the details they needed to check, I trusted it,” Thomas said. “I have real strong faith in God, and I know it was a process to get here. And I didn’t cheat that process. So, eventually if you don’t cheat that process and you stick to the grind, you’ll reap the rewards and the benefits.
“I’m just fine-tuning everything — missed a decent amount of time. So, for me to say, like, ‘Yeah I’m 100 (%)?’ No,” Thomas added. “But I’m moving in that direction every day.”
The Saints have dialed back the amount of work Thomas has gotten in some practices, but he has been present for all seven.
“There’s a number of guys that we have some planned limited practice days, some planned extra days off. So, we’ve got a plan for Mike,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said. “He’s been doing a good job going through that plan and trusting in what we’re doing.
“Every day you see just a little bit more improvement out of him, more and more confidence,” Allen added.
When former Raiders quarterback Derek Carr joined the Saints as a free agent this offseason, he credited Thomas’ combination of attitude and ability for luring him to New Orleans. In the first practice of camp, they connected. And on Monday, during the first practice of camp in which players wore full pads, Carr was able to zip quick slant passes to Thomas, who caught them in tight coverage.
When Thomas has been healthy, the Saints routinely have relied on such plays to extend drives.
“I’ve gotten to throw the football to a lot of guys with a lot of catches in my career — and he’s another one that’s special,” Carr said. “He’s a great, great teammate. He works his butt off and he’s worked really hard to get to where he’s at today. I’m just proud of him, all the work that he’s put in, and what he’s endured, the injuries and the hardship. But he’s fought through it. He’s answered the questions and he’s done the work.”
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