The Saints re-signing Michael Thomas isn't a no-brainer

Thomas is on the final year of his rookie contract

Seth Dunlap
May 13, 2019 - 3:52 pm
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There's little argument that Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas is one of the best receivers in the NFL. Thomas has a league-high 321 receptions during this three seasons in New Orleans, also accumulating 3,787 yards and 23 touchdowns.  His name often gets thrown in with Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and DeAndre Hopkins when discussing the best players at the position.  With a resume that shiny, it almost seems like a forgone conclusion that the Saints would do anything to keep Thomas in their uniform for the foreseeable future.  It's not the automatic decision many expect and there's good reason for skepticism around the Saints possibly making Thomas the highest paid receiver in the league.

First, this is an discussion about NFL salary cap economics.  Thomas has a good claim to being the best receiver in the league, and he has every right to maximize his earning potential in his next contract.  That acknowledgement doesn't diminish the serious reservations that teams should have about paying any receiver the amount of money Thomas is likely to be seeking.  

Beckham set the new bar for elite receiver money last season when he signed a five-year deal with the Giants totaling $90 million, with a $20 milling signing bonus and $65 million guaranteed.  That means Beckham's yearly average works out to $18 million per year, before incentives.   Thomas, who is entering the final season of his four-year rookie deal, will assuredly be looking for more money than that during his contract negotiations and, frankly, he should be.  There's nothing wrong with somebody as exceptionally gifted and productive as Thomas looking for the biggest payday possible.  What's much less clear is whether paying around 10 percent of your salary cap to one receiver is a smart investment for the Saints or any franchise.

The ugly truth is that only one time this millennium has the highest-paid receiver in the league played in a Super Bowl: Julio Jones played in Atlanta's 34-28 loss to the Patriots in 2017.  Never in the past 20 years has a team won a championship with the highest paid receiver in the league on their roster. Not once.  That harsh reality should scare any team who faces a decision as daunting as the one Saints are currently wrangling with; whether to pay their star receiver who has earned top-flight money.

This isn't anti-Thomas, it's just the unfortunate reality of salary-capped economics in the NFL.  Is paying a receiver, even one as productive as Thomas, $20 million-plus a season a smart investment when high level production can consistently be found at relatively bare-bones (for the NFL) prices?   Of the top-10 leaders in wide receiver receptions last season, five were on rookie contracts: Thomas, Adam Theilen, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Stefon Diggs, and Tyreek Hill.  Not a single one of those players was a first round pick, and Thelien went undrafted.  That's exactly half of the the elite NFL receivers, by this metric, who are on incredibly team-friendly rookie contracts.

Front offices across the NFL are grappling with this reality much like they have been with running backs over the past decade.  Teams now realize, rightfully, that you can get top-level production from the running back spot for bottom-level prices.  Alvin Kamara is perhaps the best example of this, a third-round gem who is already one of the most dynamic backs in the league entering his third season.  Kamara is set to make $1.05 million with the Saints in 2019, and $1.2 million in 2020.  No, it's not easy to find Kamara-type forces in the draft, especially in the third round, just like teams aren't falling into Thomas-level production from every second round receiver they draft.   However, the smartest front offices in the NFL are giving themselves as many opportunities as possible to strike gold with their rookie selections.

The Patriots are the best example of this, and they have done a masterful job of leveraging the compensatory pick system to their advantage.  According to the compensatory pick formula devised by the NFL, teams who lose more big-money free agents than they sign in a given year are awarded extra draft picks between the third and seventh rounds..  In short, for every Thomas, Kamara, or other high-priced free agent the Saints lose they'll get back that many extra mid-round draft picks, if they don't sign somebody equally valuable on the free agent market.  The initial reaction is to dismiss a third round pick as any sort of fair compensation for losing a player of Thomas' value, but when you factor in the $20 million or so in cap space team frees up then it looks much more equitable.

One hypothetical example of the decision facing the Saints:

  • The Saints can resign Thomas, making him the highest paid receiver in the league at around $20 million per year.
  • The Saints can let Thomas leave in free agency, receive a third-round draft pick in compensation, and spend that $20 million resigning three or four other 2020 free agents such as David Onyemata, Taysom Hill, Von Bell, and Eli Apple.

That decision is a lot more difficult than just posing the question, "Should the Saints make Michael Thomas the highest paid receiver in the NFL?"  Salary cap economics is a brutal game that every NFL team is forced to play.  The Saints must soon decide how they'll proceed with their star receiver, which will undoubtedly be one of most difficult free agent decisions in franchise history.

Listen to Bobby Hebert and Seth Dunlap on "Sports Talk" discuss what the Saints should do with Michael Thomas, and other pending free agents, in the podcast below.

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