After injuries, Saints WR Michael Thomas eyes NFL comeback

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

It is a Thursday afternoon within the New Orleans Saints coaching facility, properly previous the canine days of coaching camp and into the portion of the summer time the place weary gamers are counting down the times till the common season.

Saints quarterback Derek Carr has determined the 30-year-old wideout is the day’s favourite goal. He sends three passes Thomas’ strategy to begin off 7-on-7 drills, then connects with him downfield on the primary move of 11-on-11 work.

Carr retains at it, ending off with two straight connections to Thomas within the two-minute drill. Thomas makes catch after and catch, and by the tip of the day, he has 10 receptions.

“Mike’s seemed higher and higher each time he is come out right here,” Saints coach Dennis Allen mentioned that afternoon. ” … We form of knew that in some unspecified time in the future we might begin seeing what we form of count on out of him, and I feel we’re seeing that increasingly more each day he is out right here.”

It’s the most Thomas has caught all all through coaching camp.

It’s the most Thomas has caught in years.

Because the Saints method their first regular-season recreation towards the Tennessee Titans on Sept. 10 (1 p.m. ET, CBS), the identical query lingers each day: Can Thomas be the participant he was? The one who began his profession in 2016 by posting 4 1,000-plus yard receiving seasons.

Irrespective of the opinions of promise or doubt, there aren’t any absolutes in soccer. There’s solely hope.

THERE HAVE BEEN moments in observe the place it could have been simple to take a look at Thomas and film the youthful model of himself — the bolder, brasher model who as soon as hid a flip telephone within the aim posts to pay homage to former Saint Joe Horn’s well-known landing celebration to spotlight one in all his personal.

Former Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who performed with Thomas from 2016 to 2020, attended joint practices in Los Angeles towards the Chargers in Week 2 of the preseason. Brees, who has been retired since 2021, was requested whether or not he’d nonetheless like to select up the ball and throw to a few of his previous guys, and his reply was nearly wistful.

“It is arduous to not sit there and have a look at [running back Alvin] Kamara, [tight end] Jimmy [Graham] and Mike T, and say, ‘These three guys, proper?’ The moments that I had with them, when you might simply bottle that up proper? That was fairly particular,” Brees informed the official Saints podcast.

For these first three years, Brees and Thomas managed a lot of the Saints’ offense.

Thomas caught 26.9% of the group’s passes in 2017, 32.8% in 2018 and 35.6% in 2019 — a stunning flip of occasions for an offense that had by no means featured one participant so prominently.

Brees by no means had a participant he went to so persistently throughout his years with former coach Sean Payton. Their offense relied on spreading the ball round to everybody. The participant that got here closest to Thomas was working again Reggie Bush, who caught 23.6% of the group’s passes in 2006.

Earlier than that, there was Horn himself, who was catching 30% of the passes in seasons with considerably fewer makes an attempt.

However Payton had a sense about their 2016 second-round select of Ohio State, and the Saints did not hesitate to place their belief in him.

“Previous to his accidents, he was sturdy, accessible,” Payton recalled to ESPN. “Every week he’d get his physique able to play, and he was a kind of bodily [receivers], like, you felt him. I went out someday on third-down day to simply exit and mess around in press [coverage]. He form of launched off me and I swear, I had like one finger getting into a distinct path. I had a bruise on my chest. You felt such as you have been in a automotive accident.”

Thomas rewarded that perception by catching every part. He caught 85% of his targets in 2018 and 80.5% in 2019, the very best percentages of any wideout with no less than 100 receptions in a season since no less than 1992, based on Professional Soccer Reference.

Thomas averaged 1,378 receiving yards in his first 4 seasons, earned two first-team All-Professional nods, led the league in receptions twice and broke Marvin Harrison’s 17-year-old catch file with 149 in 2019.

He missed one recreation throughout that span and did not seem to have met his ceiling but.

When Thomas signed a file setting five-year, $100 million contract extension six weeks earlier than the 2020 season, there was no query the Saints have been doing the fitting factor.

However then the underside dropped out within the season-opener.

Thomas was blocking throughout a run play with 2:19 left in an eventual 34-23 win towards the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Operating again Latavius Murray was tackled into him when Thomas was turned the opposite approach. Murray hit the again of Thomas’ knee as his left foot was planting into the bottom. His leg gave approach instantly, and Thomas crashed to the turf earlier than getting up and limping off.

Thomas missed six video games with a left ankle damage, performed in six extra and sat out the rest of the common season earlier than returning for the Saints’ two playoff video games.

Thomas tried to heal his ankle by relaxation and rehab after the season, but it surely was ultimately decided he wanted surgical procedure in June 2021 to restore a torn deltoid and ligaments in his ankle. He had a setback halfway by the 2021 season and missed the whole season. Saints quarterbacks coach Ronald Curry, who was Thomas’ broad receivers coach from 2018 to 2020, mentioned Thomas had a response to the {hardware} put in his ankle throughout surgical procedure, and it would not be the final time.

“He had surgical procedure after which the metallic that they put in his leg had a response that induced the stress response,” Curry mentioned. “Then you have to take that out and redo it. So it isn’t like he had this one damage and he was performed. He had this one damage, then he had one other damage, and he was informed, ‘For those who relaxation, it’s going to heal.’ So he rests, and it does not heal, so then individuals ask why he did not have surgical procedure? Nicely as a result of they informed him if he rested it, it could heal. And it did not. Everyone reacts a bit of bit completely different.

“He did nothing unsuitable, his physique simply did not react to the surgical procedures prefer it ought to have.”

Thomas got here again the next season to catch three touchdowns within the first two video games of 2022 earlier than leaving with toe damage within the fourth quarter of a loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 3. Thomas walked off on his personal accord, and the damage was initially overshadowed after beginning quarterback Jameis Winston was additionally sidelined with again and foot points. Neither of them performed one other recreation in 2022.

Regardless of the damage occurring in September, Thomas was not positioned on injured reserve till November, with the group hoping he might return in a month. However the damage, a dislocated second toe on his proper foot, didn’t reply the way in which he and the group hoped.

“Mike had a turf toe on 10,” broad receiver Tre’Quan Smith mentioned. “I had turf toe, and that is nowhere close to what Mike had, and it was bothering me a lot … It bugged me all season. Simply think about what Mike went by.”

Thomas had surgical procedure to restore his toe after happening injured reserve however comparable points would come up. His physique didn’t reply properly to the {hardware} inserted, as soon as once more slowing the therapeutic course of.

“Whenever you get surgical procedures and so they put {hardware} in, typically your physique rejects the {hardware},” Thomas informed ESPN.

He added: “Your physique responds and therapeutic responds to it. No matter, I assume is, the 1%? I assume I am in that class.”

THE 2023 VERSION of Thomas has been stitched up and put again collectively many occasions over. The {hardware} in his toe is now out and the rehab course of is behind him.

He isn’t the identical participant he was three years in the past, and the Saints are now not the identical group. Time has moved on, however Thomas’ fireplace hasn’t gone anyplace.

“I really like the sport, positively love taking part in it greater than watching it,” Thomas mentioned. “I’ve grown a greater, deeper love for the sport, for certain. However I felt like after the primary damage, I used to be constructing that very same kind of starvation too. Now it is simply rolling much more. … I am having fun with the chance to come back out right here and compete, and I do not take it with no consideration in any respect.”

Saints basic supervisor Mickey Loomis, who restructured Thomas’ contract in March to make sure he stayed in New Orleans, mentioned in Might he “completely” believes Thomas can nonetheless be a 100-catch kind of participant.

“We have simply acquired to get him wholesome,” Loomis mentioned. “He is labored so arduous at that during the last two or three years. The outcomes have not been pretty much as good as we had all hoped, but it surely’s not due to a scarcity of effort or want by him, that is for certain.”

However that will not be simple. Solely 20 broad receivers in NFL historical past have caught no less than 100 passes in a season after turning 30, however only a few of them have performed it after a number of main accidents.

Julian Edelman caught 100 passes at age 33 after main accidents when he was 29 and 31. Andre Johnson caught 112 passes at 31 after a hamstring damage when he was 30. Corridor of Fame wideout Jerry Rice suffered severe knee accidents when he was 35, however performed seven extra seasons after that, returning the following yr to catch 82 passes and make the Professional Bowl.

“It isn’t like he will get up each day and be pleased,” broad receivers coach Kodi Burns mentioned. “He is acquired to determine a strategy to get again on high. You are going to have some ups and downs. It may be powerful. However finally you knew what it took to get to that time.”

The Saints knew they needed to be practical. They took Chris Olave with the No. 11 choose within the 2022 draft, and so they’ve made a concerted effort to get Kamara again within the passing recreation. In addition they have a plan to contain undrafted broad receiver Rashid Shaheed extra in his second season.

“Hopefully our talent guys simply proceed to grasp, one man could have 10 catches in a recreation and you could have two,” Carr, who signed with the group on a four-year deal price as much as $150 million in March, mentioned after the primary preseason recreation. “And which will occur for 2 weeks, and growth, you are gonna have 12. We’ve to have the ability to play that approach and play selflessly, and I consider we’ve a gaggle that may try this. … Hopefully our guys perceive that is simply how we will must play if we need to do the issues we need to do.”

The Saints have been caught flat-footed in 2021 in Thomas’ absence, and the passing recreation struggled in his absence in what would even be its first with out Brees since his arrival in 2006.

“His comeback story goes to be particular,” Curry mentioned in July. “He is acquired a QB that is going to get him the ball, and he is acquired different guys round him, in contrast to a few years in the past. I believed we had good expertise, however we leaned on Mike, like, lots. I do not assume we will try this this yr.”

PAYTON WEIGHED IN on Thomas regardless of being faraway from the scenario since retiring after the 2021 season, saying his Thomas’ work ethic provides him the flexibility to be the participant he as soon as was.

“I’ve little doubt that if he is wholesome he might be [one of the top receivers in the league],” mentioned Payton, now the coach of the Denver Broncos. “The query is, ‘What sort of toll has the damage had?’ However I feel he is the kind, this season, for example — his first full season again — you are gonna see an ascension in his play because the season goes on, not the opposite approach round, as a result of he is again within the offense, new quarterback, and I feel you will see increasingly more of that.”

Thomas and the Saints understand how rapidly issues can go sideways, so they’re cautious now.

“He is nonetheless getting there, nonetheless getting again,” mentioned Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who usually goes up towards Thomas in observe.

Curry wasn’t able to make any proclamations when requested about Thomas in July.

“I wasn’t going to stamp one thing I hadn’t seen,” he mentioned.

Clearly, that was now not the case heading into the season.

“The comeback is actual,” he mentioned with a smile.

Allen performed his beginning offense in Sport 1 of the preseason. Thomas had one catch for 16 yards in his lone drive — the place he performed 12 snaps.

“The ball goes to be unfold round,” Curry mentioned. “So, when you’re in search of him to get 142 catches, I do not assume that is going to occur, however that does not imply he isn’t that very same participant. He is not going to get 180 targets.”

It has been nearly 1,100 days because the opener in 2020 the place Thomas suffered his first setback, however it doesn’t matter what model of Thomas the Saints get, Allen and the group are assured in no matter he has left to provide.

“[Recovery] simply takes a bit of little bit of time,” Allen informed ESPN forward of their second preseason recreation, “and I’ve acquired zero issues about Mike Thomas. And he confirmed it within the recreation the opposite day. When the lights got here on within the recreation, he made a play. And I count on the identical factor all through the season.”

ESPN senior author Seth Wickersham contributed to this report.

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