‘The comeback is real’: Will this be Michael Thomas’ year of redemption?


METAIRIE, La. — Michael Thomas is putting on a clinic.

It’s a Thursday afternoon in the New Orleans Saints training facility, well past the dog days of training camp and into the portion of the summer when weary players are counting down the days until the regular season.

Saints quarterback Derek Carr has decided the 30-year-old wideout is the day’s favorite target. He sends three passes Thomas’ way to start off 7-on-7 drills, then connects with him downfield on the first pass of 11-on-11 work.

Carr keeps at it, finishing off with two straight connections to Thomas in the two-minute drill. Thomas makes catch after and catch, and by the end of the day, he has 10 receptions.

“Mike’s looked better and better every time he’s come out here,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said that afternoon. ” … We kind of knew that at some point we’d start seeing what we kind of expect out of him, and I think we’re seeing that more and more every day he’s out here.”

It is the most Thomas has caught all throughout training camp.

It is the most Thomas has caught in years.

As the Saints approach their first regular-season game against the Tennessee Titans on Sept. 10 (1 p.m. ET, CBS), the same question lingers every day: Can Thomas be the player he used to be? The one who started his career by posting four 1,000-plus yard receiving seasons (2016-19).

No matter the opinions of promise or doubt, there are no absolutes in football. There is only hope.

THERE HAVE BEEN moments in practice when it would have been easy to look at Thomas and picture the younger version of himself — the bolder, brasher version who once hid a flip phone in the goal posts to pay homage to former Saint Joe Horn’s famous touchdown celebration to highlight one of his own.

Former Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who played with Thomas from 2016 to 2020, attended joint practices in Los Angeles against the Chargers in Week 2 of the preseason. Brees, who has been retired since 2021, was asked whether he’d still like to pick up the ball and throw to some of his old guys, and his answer was almost wistful.

“It’s hard not to sit there and look at [running back Alvin] Kamara, [tight end] Jimmy [Graham] and Mike T, and say, ‘These three guys, right?’ The moments that I had with them, if you could just bottle that up, right? That was pretty special,” Brees told the official Saints podcast.

For those first three years, Brees and Thomas controlled most of the Saints’ offense.

Thomas caught 26.9% of the team’s passes in 2017, 32.8% in 2018 and 35.6% in 2019 — a surprising turn of events for an offense that had never featured one player so prominently.

Brees had never had a player he went to so consistently during his years with then-Saints coach Sean Payton. Their offense relied on spreading the ball around to everyone. The player who came closest to Thomas was running back Reggie Bush, who caught 23.6% of the team’s passes in 2006.

Before that, there was Horn himself, who was catching 30% of the passes in seasons with significantly fewer attempts.

But Payton had a feeling about the team’s 2016 second-round pick out of Ohio State, and the Saints didn’t hesitate to put their trust in him.

“Prior to his injuries, he was durable, available,” Payton recalled to ESPN. “Each week he’d get his body ready to play, and he was one of those physical [receivers], like, you felt him. I went out one day on third-down day to just go out and play around in press [coverage]. He kind of released off me, and I swear, I had, like, one finger going in a different direction. I had a bruise on my chest. You felt like you were in a car accident.”

Thomas rewarded that belief by catching everything. He caught 85% of his targets in 2018 and 80.5% in 2019, the highest percentages of any wideout with at least 100 receptions in a season since at least 1992, according to Pro Football Reference data.

In his first four seasons, Thomas averaged 1,378 receiving yards, earned two first-team All-Pro nods, led the league in receptions twice, and broke Marvin Harrison’s 17-year-old catch record with 149 in 2019.

He missed one game during that span and didn’t appear to have met his ceiling yet.

When Thomas signed a record-setting five-year, $100 million contract extension six weeks before the 2019 season, there was no question the Saints were doing the right thing.

But then the bottom dropped out in the season opener.

Thomas was blocking during a run play with 2:19 left in an eventual 34-23 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Running back Latavius Murray was tackled into him when Thomas was turned the other way. Murray hit the back of Thomas’ knee as his left foot was planting into the ground. His leg gave way immediately, and Thomas crashed to the turf before getting up and limping off.

Thomas missed six games with a left ankle injury, played in six more and sat out the remainder of the regular season before returning for the Saints’ two playoff games.

Thomas attempted to heal his ankle through rest and rehab after the season, but it was eventually determined he needed surgery in June 2021 to repair a torn deltoid and ligaments in his ankle. He had a setback midway through the 2021 season and missed the entire season. Saints quarterbacks coach Ronald Curry, who was Thomas’ wide receivers coach from 2018 to 2020, said Thomas had a reaction to the hardware put in his ankle during surgery, and it wouldn’t be the last time.

“He had surgery and then the metal that they put in his leg had a reaction that caused the stress reaction,” Curry said. “Then you’ve got to take that out and redo it. So it’s not like he had this one injury and he was done. He had this one injury, then he had another injury, and he was told, ‘If you rest, it will heal.’ So he rests, and it doesn’t heal, so then people ask why he didn’t have surgery? Well because they told him if he rested it, it would heal. And it didn’t. Everybody reacts a little bit different.

“He did nothing wrong; his body just didn’t react to the surgeries like it should have.”

Thomas came back the next season to catch three touchdowns in the first two games of 2022 before leaving with toe injury in the fourth quarter of a loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 3. Thomas walked off unassisted, and the injury was initially overshadowed after starting quarterback Jameis Winston was also sidelined with back and foot issues. Neither of them played another game in 2022.

Despite the injury occurring in September, Thomas was not placed on injured reserve until November, with the team hoping he could return in a month. But the injury, a dislocated second toe on his right foot, did not respond the way he and the team hoped.

“Mike had a turf toe on 10,” wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith said. “I had turf toe, and that’s nowhere near what Mike had, and it was bothering me so much. … It bugged me all season. Just imagine what Mike went through.”

Thomas had surgery to repair his toe after going on injured reserve, but similar issues would arise. His body did not respond well to the hardware inserted, again slowing the healing process.

“When you get surgeries and they put hardware in, sometimes your body rejects the hardware,” Thomas told ESPN.

He added: “Your body responds, and healing responds to it. Whatever, I guess, is the 1%? I guess I’m in that category.”

THE 2023 VERSION of Thomas has been stitched up and put back together many times over. The hardware in his toe is out, and the rehab process is behind him.

He is not the same player he was three years ago, and the Saints are no longer the same team. Time has moved on, but Thomas’ fire hasn’t gone anywhere.

“I love the game, definitely love playing it more than watching it,” Thomas said. “I’ve grown a better, deeper love for the game, for sure. But I felt like after the first injury, I was building that same type of hunger too. Now it’s just rolling even more. … I’m enjoying the opportunity to come out here and compete, and I don’t take it for granted at all.”

Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, who restructured Thomas’ contract in March to ensure he stayed in New Orleans, said in May that he “absolutely” believes Thomas can still be a 100-catch type of player.

“We’ve just got to get him healthy,” Loomis said. “He’s worked so hard at that over the last two or three years. The results haven’t been as good as we had all hoped, but it’s not because of a lack of effort or desire by him, that’s for sure.”

But getting him back to that level of production won’t be easy. Only 20 wide receivers in NFL history have caught at least 100 passes in a season after turning 30, and very few of them have done it after several major injuries.

Julian Edelman caught 100 passes at age 33 after major injuries when he was 29 and 31. Andre Johnson caught 112 passes at 31 after a hamstring injury when he was 30. Hall of Fame wideout Jerry Rice suffered serious knee injuries when he was 35 but played seven more seasons after that, returning the next year to catch 82 passes and make the Pro Bowl.

“It’s not like he’s going to wake up every day and be happy,” wide receivers coach Kodi Burns said. “He’s got to figure out a way to get back on top. You’re going to have some ups and downs. It’s going to be tough. But ultimately you knew what it took to get to that point.”

The Saints knew they had to be realistic. They took Chris Olave with the No. 11 pick in the 2022 draft, and they’ve made a concerted effort to get Kamara back in the passing game. They also have a plan to involve undrafted wide receiver Rashid Shaheed more in his second season.

“Hopefully our skill guys just continue to understand, one guy may have 10 catches in a game and you may have two,” Carr, who signed with the team on a four-year deal worth up to $150 million in March, said after the first preseason game. “And that may happen for two weeks, and boom, you’re gonna have 12. We have to be able to play that way and play selflessly, and I believe we have a group that will do that. … Hopefully our guys understand that’s just how we’re going to have to play if we want to do the things we want to do.”

The Saints were caught flat-footed in 2021 in Thomas’ absence, and the passing game struggled in his absence in what would also be its first without Brees since his arrival in 2006.

“His comeback story is going to be special,” Curry said in July. “He’s got a QB that’s going to get him the ball, and he’s got other guys around him, unlike a couple of years ago. I thought we had good talent, but we leaned on Mike, like, a lot. I don’t think we’re going to do that this year.”

PAYTON WEIGHED IN on Thomas despite being removed from the situation since retiring after the 2021 season, saying Thomas’ work ethic gives him the ability to be the player he once was.

“I have no doubt that if he’s healthy, he can be [one of the top receivers in the league],” said Payton, now the coach of the Denver Broncos. “The question is, ‘What kind of toll has the injury had?’ But I think he’s the type, this season, for instance — his first full season back — you’re gonna see an ascension in his play as the season goes on, not the other way around, because he’s back in the offense, new quarterback, and I think you’ll see more and more of that.”

Thomas and the Saints know how quickly things can go sideways, so they are cautious now.

“He’s still getting there, still getting back,” said Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who often goes up against Thomas in practice.

Curry wasn’t ready to make any proclamations when asked about Thomas in July.

“I wasn’t going to stamp something I hadn’t seen,” he said.

Clearly, that was no longer the case heading into the season.

“The comeback is real,” he said with a smile.

Allen played his starting offense in Game 1 of the preseason. Thomas had one catch for 16 yards in his lone drive — he played 12 snaps.

“The ball is going to be spread around,” Curry said. “So, if you’re looking for him to get 142 catches, I don’t think that’s going to happen, but that doesn’t mean he’s not that same player. He’s not going to get 180 targets.”

It’s been almost 1,100 days since the opener in 2020 where Thomas suffered his first setback, but no matter what version of Thomas the Saints get, Allen and the team are confident in whatever he has left to give.

“[Recovery] just takes a little bit of time,” Allen told ESPN ahead of the second preseason game, “and I’ve got zero concerns about Mike Thomas. And he showed it in the game the other day. When the lights came on in the game, he made a play. And I expect the same thing throughout the season.”

ESPN senior writer Seth Wickersham contributed to this report.

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