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New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas using training camp to round back into form after missing most of last three seasons

'That's what I really missed, being able to come out there and perfect my craft'

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Michael Thomas isn't making the claim yet that he's 100 percent.

Almost three full seasons off the field – 10 regular-season games played out of the last 50 – due to ankle and toe injuries, surgeries and rehabilitation have caked on some rust that isn't easily chipped off.

But Thomas is available for this New Orleans Saints training camp, fully practicing without limits, and if he's not 100 percent he most definitely can see it from here.

"It's a blessing for sure just to be out there, not on the side watching, just being able to put stuff on film and then go back and critique it, go back and hone your craft," he said Tuesday following the Saints' second consecutive practice in full pads. "That's all the receiver position is, just a craft and creating separation.

"It's pretty much like art, and you just have to know how to use your body and get your steps down and certain things like that, the little nuances that probably won't show up on paper or some people on the side won't even know what we did (because) we made it look kind of easy. Just the small things, building on those and building on the details and just taking hard coaching, trusting the coaching and applying it to my game. That's what I really missed, being able to come out there and perfect my craft."

There are signs of the craftsmanship that helped Thomas let a league record with 149 catches in 2019, for a franchise-record 1,725 receiving yards and a career-high tying nine touchdowns en route to being named NFL Offensive Player of the Year.

A diving catch in traffic across the middle in team drills. A back-shoulder grab snatch in one-on-ones. An all-hands pluck with a defender draped around him.

"I feel like I'm trending in the right direction," Thomas said. "Taking every day one day at a time, trying to execute at a high level, come out here and make plays and move the chains for the offense, take great coaching, correct my mistakes in the meeting room and just come out here and add value.

"I'm always chasing perfection and trying to win every rep. I'm a competitor. I don't prepare to lose, I prepare to execute and make the play. It's a process, a learning process, but the good thing about the Saints is we have a lot of great competition on the other side of the ball. So, I feel like it won't take long, but you've got to get in the groove, you've got to get some things down. But with the coaching and the players I'm surrounded by, I'm not really worried. I'm just taking it one day at a time."

Thomas' one-day-at-a-time now encompasses a maintenance schedule, something that once would have been unfathomable for the workaholic receiver. The wisdom has been gained along the way by Thomas.

"I'm learning, just taking the coaching and trusting D.A. (Coach Dennis Allen) and the plan he has in front of me, and then doing more when I can," Thomas said. "You don't always have to do stuff when the cameras are out here and people are watching. You can still go find ways to get better and work on yourself when no one is watching.

"I take pride in that, too, being able to do stuff like that. It's limited, but if you want to get better you've still got to work on your game and work on your craft and work on the little things. I'm always trying to find ways to get better, whether it's taking care of my body off the field or just catching after practice. It's just a lot of nuances that go into it to create the player that I want to be."

"There's a number of guys that we have some planned limited practice days, some planned extra days off," Allen said. "We've got a plan for Mike. I think he's been doing a good job going through that plan and trusting in what we're doing. I think every day you see just a little bit more improvement out of him, more and more confidence and I think it's been good to see."

One method of confidence-building has been to go against Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore often during drills. The two have been battling since their days together at Ohio State – Thomas was drafted in the second round by the Saints in 2016, and Lattimore was the first of the team's two first-round picks the next year.

"It's good on good," Thomas said. "He gets his licks, I get my licks. I've been going against Marshon like eight years, nine years. I'm very grateful for that because it allows you to not do the same things. You have to be locked in. It forces you to pay attention to the details, know your opponent. It's always going to be a competition, it's always going to be a fight.

"He's a tremendous player, I look up to him. I've always said, since I came into the league from the time where it was time to draft the year after, I was like, 'Go get him.' I always believed in Marshon, I always felt like he was the best (defensive back) so I take a lot of pride in going against him. The sky is the limit for him because he still has so much untapped potential.

"Knowing that, and coming off an injury, to be able to come out here and compete with a guy like that, I think that's a blessing in disguise because that will pay off in the long run."

Here's how it pays off: A healthy and available Thomas can transform the Saints' offense, providing the contest-catch machine and chain-mover that will draw attention and provide space for the other offensive weapons.

"We could be tremendous, honestly," Thomas said. "One day at a time, but we see a lot of flashes on film. We've got a tremendous group, a lot of guys that are going to show up and show out.

"It's going to be fun, it's going to be explosive. Coach preaches explosive plays and making explosive plays and we have a lot of explosive players, all across the offense. We're eager to put that on display and win games and handle our business."

The New Orleans Saints took the field for workouts during 2023 Training Camp presented by Rouses Markets on Tuesday, August 1.

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