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Saints program cover story: Michael Thomas

Michael Thomas has become the second player in NFL history to have 90 or more receptions in his first two seasons.

They're trying. Heaven knows they're trying, even as they may have an idea what will happen and how it will happen. They're grabbing, yanking, clutching, pushing and even eye-gouging (accidentally, we think).

But knowledge and physicality haven't been sufficient defenses.

Still, they Can't Guard Mike.

Entering Sunday's game against the Falcons in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas has become the second player in NFL history to have 90 or more receptions in his first two seasons, joining Odell Beckham Jr. His 94 catches, with two regular-season games remaining, is two more than the 92 he had last year (which was a franchise rookie record), and he's 53 yards short of topping last year's total of 1,137, which also was a Saints record for rookies.

He already has the most catches in franchise history in the first two seasons (186), and is third on the NFL all-time list, behind Jarvis Landry (195) and Beckham (187). No Saints player ever has had 100 receptions in a season, and he has two games to catch the six passes he needs to reach the mark.

Thomas is a different player than he was last season, and not just because noticeably he gained several pounds of muscle (from 212, to 220 or so) during the offseason.

"Just formationally, where he goes, I would say is expanded," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "And then I would say the volume, with regard to what he does when he goes there. In his first year you try to get him set at one position and move him around some, but he is someone that I think has gotten better in that area. We've got to keep finding ways to target him. He's been real productive, not only with the catch and the catch point, but after the catch."

"It's just kind of what comes with it," said Thomas, who's left eye remained bloodshot on Thursday, a week after he was poked in it during a fourth-quarter reception against Atlanta. He plans to wear a visor the rest of the season.

"If it's requested or if they're putting me in position and the opportunity presents itself, I have to get it done," he said. "Because at the end of the day, I want to be that guy that touches the ball a lot of times, I want to make plays for this team, I want to move the chains.

"So when the play is drawn up like that in the playbook during the week, (and) we get it, we install it, I have to give 100 percent and get this done because people are counting on me."

The more the Saints count on Thomas, the more the numbers begin to stack, especially in the last couple of months.

In the last nine games, during which the Saints (10-4) won seven times, he has 66 of his 94 receptions, for 764 of his 1,085 yards, and three touchdowns, with no games of less than five catches and both of his 100-yard receiving days.

He's second in the league in receptions and sixth in receiving yards, numbers that project to 107 catches and 1,240 yards. The franchise single-season records are 99 by Jimmy Graham in 2011, and 1,399 by Joe Horn in '04, respectively.

Thomas sees his numbers. He can't help noticing.

"There comes a time, like around this time of the season, where stuff starts adding up and people start paying attention so you start to see it more," he said. "But it's a long season, it's a long process and at the end of the day, I'm just trying to make sure the ball doesn't hit the ground, catch every football that's in the air, any one that comes my way, and make explosive plays.

"I take a lot of pride in catching the ball. That's the key thing for receivers. That's your No. 1 job – if you ask a receiver what does he have to be able to do, you have to be able to catch the ball. So, like, when the ball is in the air and then with a guy like (Saints quarterback) Drew Brees, who spreads the ball out a lot, you want to make a play. You want to build trust. The best way, probably, is to catch it – if it's a bad ball, if it's a great ball, however it comes to you. You just want to make that play."

Back-shoulder, all-hands pluck? He can do that. Quick slant across a cornerback's face, sliding his body between the ball and defender? Few are better. Run-after-the-catch? Get him the ball in workable position, and no one defensive back is going to get him on the ground.

Put him in a one-on-one situation, and there's a good chance that he's going to win.

"He's got stature, size, he's strong at the line of scrimmage," Payton said. "There's a lot of traits that he has that, when you talk about man-to-man technique, make it something that he's comfortable with."

The comfort shows in his growing confidence within the offense.

"More polished, in a lot of ways," Brees said. "He came in really raw. There are certain innate traits that he has that you just don't find. He's extremely competitive, his work ethic is second to none. His focus and intensity during practice – every rep is like a game rep to him, and that's really rare.

"When it comes to playing the wide receiver position, especially as you learn the offense and begin to understand the nuances and some of the adjustments that you have to be able to do on the fly, those are things that just take time. So going from last year, where he was just really raw, to now being a guy who understands the bigger picture, understands what's happening around him, understands ways to get open, understands slight variations to routes based upon look or leverage or coverage or whatever it might be, he's really matured in that way."

Said Thomas: "I would have to credit my coaching. I'll start there – having C.J. (receivers coach Curtis Johnson), (assistant receivers coach) Ronald Curry and just asking questions, practice. But I'll start with my coaching.

"My coaching has definitely ramped up a lot, coach is coaching me really hard. It's not really a lot of, 'Good jobs.' Good jobs are basically what I'm supposed to do, and, 'Great jobs,' and 'Great play' are those plays where you go over someone or you just do special things. Those are the plays that I'm trying to do the majority of the time. Just the coaching and just the attention to detail.

"Second year with Drew and second year in the offense, but I feel like I'm not close to where I can be. I feel like I'm still a work in progress. I still have a lot of room for improvement. I'm making plays and I'm playing consistent football, but I feel like I'm not where I want to be, or anywhere close."

And still, they can't guard him.

"I'm getting open," he said. "I'm doing my job. Not necessarily that I'm better than anyone, it's just I'm getting open. We have a lot of talent, which is why we spread the ball around.

"If a guy's getting open, the quarterback, it kind of makes his job easy. So that's what I'm trying to do, I'm just trying to make his job easy. Catch as many footballs and move the chains and win games."

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