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New Orleans' "Buckeyes" envisioned greatness for receiver Michael Thomas years ago

"It's crazy. Off the wall."

The New Orleans Saints teammates who saw Michael Thomas coming aren't surprised by what they see now that he has arrived.

Those who have had the lengthiest football links to Thomas – back to when the All-Pro receiver was running routes at Ohio State, from 2012-15 – had an inkling that Thomas' hunger in college would help him devour the NFL.

And eat, Thomas has.

The Saints' record-setting receiver has another one in his sights: With 86 receptions (for 1,027 yards and four touchdowns) entering Sunday's game against Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., Thomas is on pace for 153 catches this season, 10 more than the NFL single-season record of 143, set by Indianapolis' Marvin Harrison in 2002.

He already is the Saints' single-season record holder for receptions and receiving yards (125 for 1,405, respectively, last year), set the NFL record by reaching 400 catches in 56 games (the previous record was 61 games), and holds the league record for most receptions (321) in his first three seasons.

And if his last three games are any indication – 33 catches for 395 yards – he's warming to the task. Those averages (11 catches for 131.7 yards per game) are higher than his season averages (8.6 catches for 103 yards per game).

Correction: Thomas isn't eating. He's feasting.

"It's no surprise, because I knew what type of receiver he was going to be," said safety Vonn Bell, who joined Thomas in the Saints' 2016 draft class (both were second-round picks, Bell after Thomas) and who played at Ohio State from 2013-15. "Every day, he went to work. You knew what you were going to get from him. He's got one speed.

"He was always hungry, he wanted to be the guy. Just coming to work every day, chopping at the wood. He just kept on being consistent. You knew what you were getting from him."

What the Saints have gotten this season is a possible NFL MVP candidate.

Quarterback Drew Brees and tight end Jared Cook see no reason why Thomas shouldn't be in the conversation, despite playing a position that historically has been overlooked for the honor.

No receiver ever has received the award. But, Thomas is poised to do something no receiver ever has done, and has done it with and without his Hall of Fame-bound quarterback. Brees missed five games after thumb surgery, and Thomas caught 42 passes for 551 yards and three touchdowns.

"When you're on top of your game and it's your first four years, your first three years, your first two years, you try to get as much as you can out of the game," said receiver Ted Ginn Jr., who has been a Saint since 2017, and who played at Ohio State from 2004-06. "I think that's what Mike is doing right now. He's getting every element that he can get from the game right now. In a sense, it's making it seem like he's hungry but in another sense, he's just playing football.

"Not at all (surprised). You would have thought Mike was from our area (Ginn is from Cleveland, Ohio, and played at Glenville High under his father, Ted Ginn Sr.), the way that he attacks different things. I just remember when he was in school (at Ohio State), he and my father had a bond, a special little bond. And everybody thought Mike came from Glenville."

Perhaps they all didn't know where he was from, but at Ohio State, they all seemed to know where he was going.

"I knew Mike was one of the best, just going against him," said cornerback Eli Apple, who has faced off against Thomas in practice as a Saint (2018 and this year) and did so as a Buckeye (2014-15). "How tough it was one-on-one, the battles we had. I feel like we made each other better.

"I'm not surprised because somebody like him, who prepares the way he does, it's expected. He just takes his craft so seriously. I feel like he's a model receiver – like, if you want to be a great receiver, you've got to prepare the way he does with film, his body, doing extra work. He's always had that focus. I say it was expected. Of course, everybody didn't think that during draft day. But you see what the production looks like now. It's crazy. Off the wall."

Thomas' work ethic has been called the same, and Apple said that work has been beneficial to him then, and now.

"He's quicker than people think at the line – he's got good quick-twitch – and then he's strong at the top of the route, with strong hands," Apple said. "And he's savvy, he knows how to contort his body a certain way because he's so flexible in his ankles. Even this year, in the offseason we had a lot of work and he really helped me refine some of my man-to-man skills."

Apple, he helped refine.

The record books, he's attempting to rewrite.

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