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New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas in contention to snag NFL Offensive Player of the Year award

New Orleans Saints players take to the field at the 2020 National Football League Pro Bowl.
New Orleans Saints players take to the field at the 2020 National Football League Pro Bowl.

The list is short, because there only is one name on it: Michael Thomas.

No player in NFL history has caught more passes in a single season than the 149 receptions (for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns) Thomas collected in 2019, six more than the previous single-season record.

He did it despite being the Saints' unquestioned top receiving threat (he accounted for 36 percent of New Orleans' 418 receptions and 41 percent of the team's 4,244 receiving yards), and despite a torn thumb ligament that sidelined starting quarterback Drew Brees for five full games. He averaged 8.4 catches for 110.2 yards in five games with Teddy Bridgewater starting at quarterback, and 9.7 catches for 106.7 yards in 11 games with Brees.

In other words, nothing could derail Thomas from having a historic season in a continued career progression (from 92 catches for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie, to 104 catches for 1,245 yards and five touchdowns in '17, to 125 grabs for 1,405 yards and nine scores in '18, to the record-setting '19).

And perhaps, it could lead to Thomas being named NFL Offensive Player of the Year on Saturday night during the NFL Honors broadcast.

Former star NFL receiver Steve Smith, who caught 1,031 catches for 14,731 yards and 81 touchdowns in a 16-year career, currently is an NFL Network analyst. The three-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler isn't a man known to bite his tongue, and he didn't when describing Thomas. He has a name for those of Thomas' ilk.

"What he's doing, I believe he's setting himself up, as he gets older, to still be relevant, still be a play-maker because of this: In the beginning, you could see his athleticism," Smith said. "But athleticism will only get you so far.

"You have to, at some point – and I don't know when that will be – but you also have to be a technician as well. And when you're a technician and have the athleticism, you know what that's called? In my book, that's called a ------ ------. You keep people up at night. You keep defensive coordinators, secondary coaches up at night because they're trying to figure not how do they stop him, they're praying can we just hold him to maybe three or four catches in a quarter.

"Michael Thomas is a ------ ------."

The consensus is that Thomas possesses elite-level tenacity and work ethic. Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green said he met Thomas this year at the Pro Bowl. Green had 54 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries in his 20-year NFL career; the league didn't chart passes defensed his first 16 seasons, but he had 33 in his last four years, including 15 passes defensed when he was 39 years old.

"Me and him were talking about the attributes of a wide receiver," said Green, who started all 16 regular-season games 12 times in his career. "Speed, heart, hands, route running, those are some of the primary attributes to have. And he was talking about becoming a route-running technician.

"That was an important factor for him in terms of what he wants to do. That's an important factor because if you can get out of your break in a way that is seamless, where you don't give me any signs, anything that I can see that is happening to get the jump on you, (that works to the receivers' advantage)."

Green said that while attempting to slow down Thomas is formidable, he would've done the things he did while becoming a legendary cover corner at 5 feet 9, 184 pounds.

"All the same tricks that I used for anybody else," he said, smiling. "I covered people with my feet. I wasn't in a wrestling match, I wasn't in a boxing match. They're going somewhere. It's like if I'm going to be in Chicago tomorrow, but I don't tell you that, but you've got to be where I'm going to be.

"So I've got to be where you're going to be, even though you didn't tell me where you're going to be. So how am I going to get there? I'm going to get there with my feet. So I covered everybody with my feet because the bottom line is, my feet are my wheels. They carry my body to where I need to be.

"So as I follow you and respond to your moves, then my feet get me to where I need to be positionally, where the ball is going to be. Now, you've got to read the offense and understand that. But at the end of the day, you've got to have the skills to do what you don't know is going to happen. So, I would cover him like I covered Mike Quick, or Roy Green, or Tony Hill, or Michael Irvin, or Jerry Rice or anybody else. He's going to take off from a point, he's going to end up somewhere else. I'd have to just be there."

The best photos of New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas from his record-setting 2019 season.

Few, if any, have been successful implementing that approach, or any other, against Thomas, who continues to catch passes game after game for the Saints. Nine times this season, he caught at least 10 and twice more, he caught nine.

"Greatness," said former NFL receiver Chad Johnson, who caught 766 passes for 11,059 yards and 67 touchdowns in 12 seasons. "This is a league of consistency and what-have-you-done-for-me-lately.

"For him to be able to come in and be consistent, for one, is difficult. There was a quarterback change (with Brees' injury), and consistency still remained. The discipline in his craft and doing everything the right way is the reason he is Michael Thomas. He's one of the best for a reason."

Johnson, a cousin to Thomas' uncle, Keyshawn Johnson – another former NFL standout receiver – said there's a pride that goes along with being a team's No. 1 receiver and still managing to produce game-changing numbers even while opponents know you'll be a top target.

"I wouldn't say it's hard," he said. "That's the joy of it. That's the joy of being No. 1, being able to accept that challenge and, for me, when I played, to tell you it's coming and still be able to go out there and do it. Mike walks a little different, a little quietly and does the performing with his play. Which is why he's one of the best."

Johnson said he sees no ceiling for Thomas, even after this historic season.

"The game is different – the way they take care of you, the way technology is," he said. "The ceiling for him, there is none. The possibilities are endless. With Drew Brees and a coach like that, Sean Payton? There is no ceiling."

Smith seems to agree with that.

"All the elements are in place for him to thrive," Smith said. "And his ability to want to be great also makes him better as well. He's in a perfect situation: Great quarterback, great offensive play design and also a great play-caller with Sean Payton. Because you can be a great play designer, but not be able to call the plays in the thick of the fire.

"He has all the perfect ingredients; however, he's exceeded all expectations of him. All the things I hear about him, he works his butt off, he doesn't take days off, he works for everything he's gotten. You rarely hear a negative thing about him, other than maybe he works too hard. And I don't think that's a negative thing."

New Orleans Saints players take to the field at the 2020 National Football League Pro Bowl.

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