Written By: Josh Crocker
You’ve drawn a late pick in your league’s startup which leaves you at the mercy of those picking ahead. Two of the names you’re very likely to see are Amari Cooper (ADP 1.08) and Michael Thomas (2.03) The consensus definitely falls with Amari. He’s going to be great, some day, eventually. And then there’s Thomas, he’s good, but the Saints like to spread it around, so, he can’t ever get true #1 targets. These are the narratives we hear, but should we trust them?
Both of these players played for big name colleges, Amari at Alabama and Michael at Ohio State. Amari had the edge both in production, and the slice of his team’s production for which he was responsible with a super impressive College Dominator of 47.2%. That puts him in the 92nd percentile (per playerprofiler.com) compared to Thomas’ 39.6% Dominator, 78th percentile rating, which is still solid. It’s fair to say that both players were dominant in college. But, Amari took it above and beyond with over 1700 yards in 2014 at what is known as a predominantly run first offense. Thomas never eclipsed 800 yards as a Buckeye. As a result Amari was drafted 4th overall by the Raiders whereas Michael Thomas became a mid 2nd rounder for New Orleans. Point for team Cooper.
Another argument to be made for Cooper is age. Amari is shockingly young. He had a breakout age of 18.2, which is amazing. Especially so when said player is playing for Alabama, who has no trouble recruiting top shelf talent and faces high quality defenses. Michael Thomas falls at the other end of the spectrum with a break-out age of 21.5. That puts Thomas in the company of Kevin White, whose breakout age came at 21.2 years. It’s not looking great for team Thomas as this point
While Amari does have elite draft capital, it’s hard to compete with a player who lands in Wide Receiver Heaven, also known as New Orleans, even if he was picked a round later. Last year the Saints threw the ball 701 times for over 5000 yards to the Raiders’ 622 pass plays for about 1000 yards less. Thomas saw almost 20% of his team’s targets (121) and turned them into 1137 yards and 9 TD’s. Amari saw a slightly bigger slice of the pie at 21.6% (130 targets). He was able to compile 1070 yards on the season, and 6 TD’s. In his first year, I remind you, Thomas had 4 top 12 weeks and 5 top 24 weeks. Amari also had 4 top 12’s, but only 3 top 24’s. So, Amari is a little more volatile even while getting the edge in targets. Admittedly, Thomas played at a high, maybe unrepeatable level of efficiency catching 76% of his targets. We should probably expect some drop-off, but no Saints receivers were lower than the mid 60’s in catch rate last year. As long as he’s catching passes from Drew Brees I think we can expect him to be relatively efficient. With the exit of Cooks, a 10% drop in efficiency could be offset by a 10% increase in target volume. Expecting no growth out of a player like Michael Thomas after only his rookie year seems overly pessimistic.
As a quick aside, detractors will point to Brees’ age. It’s a real thing, he won’t play forever. And, the Saints would be hard pressed to replace Brees with anything comparable. But, this falls in the “things we don’t know” category. I wouldn’t recommend making big decisions based on things in this category. Play with the information you have. Drew Brees is fantastic. Tangent concluded.
The most compelling difference is what these two have put on paper is in the red-zone play. Looking at red-zone opportunity (targets + rushing attempts inside the 20) Michael Thomas had 19 such opportunities, more than any other pass catcher on his team, and behind only Ingram and Hightower. Among Raiders, Latavius Murray led the way with 43, Michael Crabtree with 21, Seth Roberts with 20, and finally Amari with 13. The Raiders actually give a larger portion of their red zone opportunities to their pass catchers, and still Amari lags behind. It’s probably too early to start making Julio Jones comparisons, but players like this do exist. Some guys just don’t score touchdowns. If we are going to identify a lack of touchdowns as a hole in Amari’s game, why not just consider Michael Thomas as an alternative?
Image courtesy of Tigerdroppings.com
As I’ve already mentioned, the Saints no longer employ the talents of Brandin Cooks, who accounted for 117 targets in the Saints passing offense. The Saints did bring in Ted Ginn, who last year was targeted 95 times by a QB in Cam Newton who liked the long ball. Brees is no stranger to going deep either, but I think we are hard pressed to count Ginn as a threat to Thomas’ slice of the pie. He’s a lid-lifter, a player to divert deep support. He’s no target hog and has never been targeted more than 97 times in a season. The Saints seem comfortable with the receiving weapons they have, adding no major pass catchers outside of Kamara in the back-field. So, while I’m not calling for Thomas to see a huge increase in workload, he could see a modest increase. His team has created some room to grow.
On the other hand, the Raiders’ offseason changes look like a team that wants to add weapons. The Raiders offense didn’t employ a TE of note and brought in Jared Cook. The Raiders were willing to give their unremarkable TE’s 83 targets last year. If combined, that’s a target share similar to that of Eric Ebron and would rank as a high TE2, again, if combined. They also signed undrafted free agent Ishmael Zamora, who could shake things up at the bottom of the depth chart, and is likely to be more of a problem for Seth Roberts than Amari Cooper, if he is able to earn snaps at all. But, the Seth Roberts role was significant. He was targeted 77 times on the year, and more times in the redzone than Amari. If Zamora is just a better Seth Roberts it could just keep Amari from expanding beyond his current boundaries. The Raiders also traded out Latavius Murray for Marshawn Lynch. If he turns out to be more effective in the redzone than Latavius and shrinks the pass catchers’ slice of the redzone pie, it’s another challenge to expansion of the Amari kingdom.
To wrap things up, few turn picks make me happier than the combination of Amari Cooper and Michael Thomas. One of the pitfalls of player debates is falling into the position of “A is good, and therefore B is not”. These are both great players with great futures in front of them. Having said that, I think Thomas already is a lot of the things that we wish Cooper would be. He’s a clear #1 on his team. His team uses him in the endzone. If the Raiders traded away Michael Crabtree and started throwing more TD’s to Cooper, we’d be thrilled. And if that happened, Amari would be Michael Thomas. It’s still totally within the realm of possibilities that Amari breaks out this year and finally transcends. I hope he does. But would we rather bank on that, or the continuation of things that are already happening?
Michael Thomas is set to High, consider taking him above ADP. I like him around the 10th Wide Receiver off the board
Amari Cooper is set to Low. He’s a great young talent but I’m taking AJ, TY Hilton, and yes, Michael Thomas before him