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Scouting Report: Michael Thomas and the False Dichotomy of Upside vs. Readiness

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Ohio State's Michael Thomas appeals to one edge of our understanding of wide receiver types. Instead of the athletic freak, he's the technician. Is that a fair characterization of Thomas, and if so, is that worth an early pick?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

How good does a receiver have to be for you to ignore athletic upside, role fit and the implications of analytics? The best receiver of all time, Jerry Rice, and arguably the best receiver in the NFL, Antonio Brown, both provide test cases for what it means to be athletically limited but technically dazzling. On the other hand, perhaps the most dangerous receiver of all time, Randy Moss, and the other arguable best receivers in the NFL—Dez Bryant and Julio Jones—represent the other end of the debate, where supreme athletic ability defines their playing style even with technical proficiency.

I don't think Michael Thomas represents either end of the debate, though many do. Perhaps how you respond to who he is as a player defines which end of the spectrum you find more appealing.

Other Reports:

Route Running

If Corey Coleman is an absolute pleasure to watch after the catch, Michael Thomas may be his counterpart as an aesthetic wonder as a before-catch player. Maybe that's too extreme given Coleman's proclivity after the catch, but Thomas really is a fun route-runner to watch. He has some big deficiencies in this area as well, which doesn't make him the polished prospect some make him out to be, but he has a lot of positive qualities here that I think are worth talking about.

No one perhaps characterizes the idea behind effective route-running than Matt Waldman, who asks if wide receivers can tell a story. Most of the time when talking about specific route-running techniques, we're really talking about the tools a receiver has to tell a story, with the defensive back as the intended (and deceived) audience. For writers writing a novel, there are fundamentals that every practitioner should know. Despite those constraints, there are countless writing styles that are nevertheless effective.

Thomas, to me, is a masterful storyteller. He's not an unconventional storyteller like Stevie Johnson, but he's not a standard one like Antonio Brown. Somewhere in the middle, he has the ability to sell a story to defensive backs and create space using textbook moves and some work of his own that nevertheless preserves the timing of the route. Creativity is an underrated trait in football that at best gets noticed with quarterbacks and pass-rushers and often not at all. In the case of a player like Thomas, it's a defining, positive feature.

He nails a lot of the fundamentals. He drives off the line of scrimmage with his pads over his knees, always threatening a deep route. He'll angle his hips and shoulders away from his route, encouraging the defensive back to turn his hips too soon... though if he detects a defensive back playing patiently, he'll willing engage in them in a double move.

Most of the time we see or hear of a wide receiver using double moves, we're talking about a stop-and-go route designed to make a corner bite hard on a comeback route before exploiting them deep (which by the way, he can do that—and that wasn't the only time he burned a good corner that badly; just ask Isaiah Wharton from Rutgers), but for Thomas that concept expands into angling into the middle of the field, then into the sideline in order to maximize his leverage advantage.

Typically, college receivers will use the threat of a comeback to get open on a deep route or vice versa, but Thomas is comfortable threatening a drive route to go deep or a comeback to get open on a dig.

Some of his unique route-running probably won't work in the NFL. When he rips and swims off of a jam to get open he might look more like a defensive end than a receiver, which includes the angled footwork, hips and hand movement—some of which is somewhat illegal (like the grabbing) or otherwise potentially unwise—exaggerating the technique exposes more of the body to off-balance pushes.

Another unique facet of his route-running that may or may not translate as a rookie, but I think I like, is the way he approaches the stem. His footwork reminds me a lot of Marshawn Lynch and how every step looks poised to cut. When Lynch does this, it gives him a wide base and makes it impossible to predict the direction he'll go, though it sometimes gives the impression of duck-walking because his feet step wider than his shoulders. He can do it while maintaining speed and it gives him extra shiftiness and takes advantage of his extraordinary balance.

Thomas isn't as exaggerated with it, but this kind of running ratchets down his speed a notch; his footwork cleans up when he's past the defensive back or has the ball in his hands and he's much faster. That's OK, because he gets to his landmark on time and it's extremely easy for him to sink his hips and explode through cuts. He can speed up in routes, which he'll do at times late in games to get open deep, and his multiple route speeds keeps defensive backs off-balance.

He looks through the defender and his eyes don't betray his route—something that will always transition well and can be an issue for even professional receivers to master.

At the end of the day, it's safe to say Thomas gets open. Sometimes it's his quickness, technique, style or other deceptive capability but he gets open. And sometimes he's obscenely open, and not because the player's he's playing against are bad. At least once a game, the ball is thrown to him while the opposing defensive back is facing the wrong direction, like so:

He does so with precision and sharpness in his routes, running them at textbook depth and correct angles. After watching Doctson and Coleman lose the advantages they create with their athleticism, release or intuition by rounding out routes or signaling them with the subtlety of an elephant, Thomas' route-running is a refreshing and fascinating change. By preventing defensive backs from reading his routes and by taking angles instead of shortcuts, he preserves any advantages he creates in the first three steps of the route.

He doesn't have the kind of physicality throughout routes that define receivers like Dez Bryant but he is physical enough to win the space he wants to win over the course of the route. When he navigates the boundary, he's rarely pushed off of his line and, even better, he uses his strength and physicality to maintain separation vertically.

All that said, there is one consistent issue I have with his route-running, which is to hop back at the release. Setting back for a microsecond is perhaps not ideal but fairly normal in the NFL, but often Thomas will step back or hop both feet before getting off the line of scrimmage.

This isn't part of a coached release to get the defensive back lunging; he rocks back against nearly every leverage and stance, and typically receivers want to roll off their front foot at the snap instead of generate power with their back foot. It's unnatural, but a big part of efficient movement. It's one of a few reasons I think his speed is underrated.

It creates issues not just with timing, but it can create significant problems against press coverage in the NFL. His work against defensive backs on the line of scrimmage was very good in college and he works release moves well with his upper body, not just at the line but at all instances of contact.

For some coordinators, this issue can keep a receiver off the field, and occasionally it feels like Norv is one of those coordinators, but I don't anticipate this being a serious barrier to seeing significant time. It helps that it seemed to have disappeared late in the season, but it looks like it may have resurfaced in the bowl game.

Even with that issue in mind, I think his releases off the line provide much more positives than negatives. He has a variety of release techniques, and knows that he needs to attack defensive backs instead of letting them dictate the route. He releases easily off the line but declares intentions late. He recognizes the value of exaggerated steps and harsh angles off the release and can win quickly off the line as a result.

He can combine the violence of chopping his hands at the release with the finesse of reducing surface area in order to get free off of jams both at the line of scrimmage and several yards downfield. He's very good at using his hands, but needs to be more consistent about dipping his shoulder to limit the effectiveness of opposing DBs.

Another problem with Michael Thomas' route running is his spacing. His zone awareness doesn't seem particularly tight and he's too willing to cross zones without creating room for his quarterback. Angling away from individual players is easy for him, and he's frankly stunning at it. But when the variables increase, he doesn't adjust his routes.

He also doesn't seem to find space as easily in scramble situations and needs better awareness of how to help his quarterback when the play breaks down.

This sounds worse than it is (remember, he tends to find ways to get open much more often than not), but this is certainly a negative. This, along with the release issues may stymie his "pro-readiness," but he's such an intriguing route-runner throughout the rest of his routes that I doubt they keep him off the field for too long.

Thomas will show some more trouble against defensive backs who exhibit patience and discipline, though that was an issue earlier in the year than it was later on, as sometimes he was bold enough against those players to run the route he signaled.

Thomas has shown remarkable attention to detail this year as a receiver and while I hesitate to call any receiver "polished," Thomas may be the most polished receiver in this draft—though Sterling Shepard may be able to steal that crown when I take a closer look at him. Like Jerome Simpson, he drew a lot of pass interference penalties. Unlike Simpson, he didn't need to act for them (though he drew great pleasure in visibly calling for them).

Consider that for all of his allegedly limited athleticism, Michael Thomas destroyed someone who may be the best cornerback in the country, Jourdan Lewis. The statline shows 50 yards, but the film shows much more (and given that it was 44 percent of their team's passing yards, more impressive than it initially sounds). It was a shellacking.

Receiving

Minnesota Vikings fans are craving a contested-catch receiver and I'm not sure that's what Michael Thomas does. While I was only able to log three contested catches in normal situations (he won two of them, which is at least a good rate), the fact that he won zero of the five abnormal opportunities I think is more indicative. By abnormal, I mean those negated by pass interference or in Hail Mary situations.

It's not fair to expect a receiver on any individual play to win with the defensive back pushing him inside his frame through the catch while the ball is underthrown, but a good contested-catch receiver should win at least one of several instances in that situation.

While Thomas has above-average ball-tracking capability, he doesn't position well for it when faced with the likelihood of competition for the ball. Add his disappointing vertical lift on high balls, and there's definitely an issue when it comes to making sure that he can win when defensed.

On the other side of it, he catches a lot of passes within his radius. PFF had him with a ridiculously low four percent drop rate over the last two years, though a less generous count from me had it just under eight percent—still the best of the receivers I've tracked so far.

Outside of drops, however, I'd argue that he has pretty good hands. I have issues with his catch-technique in that he lets the ball come in when he can instead of snatching it away from his frame. It's not quite the same as body-catching, but it is something that in theory increases the likelihood of dropping the ball or seeing it get snatched away by an enterprising defender.

Cradling the ball in causes issues, but when it's necessary to extend for the ball, he usually does a good job. Aside from the positioning issue described above, he does a good job adjusting to the ball, especially when thrown behind him. He generally grabs outside his frame if he needs to and has a decent catch radius, but there will be frustrating times (and sometimes on the sideline) when he won't fully extend.

His hands technique for these balls is very good and he flashes them late in the route as the ball is coming instead of giving away the fact that the ball is coming in—useful against man coverage. He keeps them together, moves them in unison and lets his fingertips do the catching instead of his palms.

Though he won't necessarily extend his arms away from his frame if he doesn't feel he has to (and sometimes, context demands that he keep the ball into his body, like catching a slant as a safety barrels in), he will attack the ball when working back towards the quarterback and makes sure to come to the ball with his body, not the other way around. This contradicts his preferred catch technique, but in this case, how he secures the ball stands in opposition to how he gets to the ball.

At the very least, he shields the ball from the defender when pulling down the catch, preventing late pass defenses and giving him an extra step away.

For the most part, he's good at catching the ball.

After Catch

Michael Thomas' after-catch work gives credit to his athleticism. He generates a lot of YAC for a player that isn't supposed to be known for his athletic capability, but honestly, he shows a lot of speed with the ball in his hands. While I don't see him as a Corey Coleman or anything, I think that his combine scores will surprise some people—he's currently listed by NFLDraftScout as having a 4.54-second 40-yard dash, and I wouldn't be surprised (as I indicate below) if he ran a 4.50 flat and could see a 4.44 or comparable (though unlikely).

Either way, his speed on the field has allowed him to split safeties on slants and score touchdowns, and even get vertical on even the faster cornerbacks. In terms of his after-catch ability, it has made him an asset and a big part of the reason he's scored an astounding 47 percent of his team's passing touchdowns.

But even if that weren't true, he shows great instincts, good vision and surprising agility for a man his size. He runs through contact and shows excellent balance against both direct and indirect hits. There's a reason that he was the preferred choice on fast, bubble and tunnel screens over a receiver projected to run a 4.43 (Jalin Marshall) and the electric Braxton Miller—projected to run a lightning-fast 4.36.

He has good intuition for how to react immediately after the catch without losing focus on the ball, and turns out to open field. He immediately tucks the ball into the correct arm to protect it from defenders and displays lower- and upper-body elusiveness, with flexibility and full integration of his athleticism with his intentions.

Thomas shows power, too, with a nasty stiff-arm and great drive, as well as a second effort to get through tackles. He shows elusiveness that I suppose one could describe as deceptive.

He's not like Corey Coleman after the catch and he never will be. He simply does better than most people with his attributed speed do (like Anquan Boldin). It's a good asset he has in his toolbox.

#Metrics

His age-adjusted production as defined by the advanced metrics described in the previous pieces is wanting at best. His market share of yards (percentage of team receiving yards) should be 41.4% in order to be the kind of top-level receiver for his draft position, but instead is 32 percent. There are two extenuating circumstances, however, that help rectify that problem.

The first is his utterly nuts market share of touchdowns (in the Corey Coleman piece, we talked about how strong of a predictor it can be). With 47% of his team's touchdown total, the market-share evidence in favor of Thomas is in fact quite strong. There's a tough balancing act to play here; on balance, Thomas' touchdown share is harder to achieve than his yards share. But the evidence is generally stronger for the predictive power of yards than it is for touchdowns.

In this case, I would call the analytic evidence a wash, but there's something that gives Thomas a strong case, at least from what I believe. Thomas is going in the same draft as Braxton Miller, Jalin Marshall, Nick Vannett and Ezekiel Elliot, who together combined for 546 yards. This was functionally the exception that we gave for both Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, who both scored well below the market share of yards that indicate a successful receiver at the next level.

I linearized the function, but a rough approximation of the idea is as follows: If you give away a third of a first-round pick's yards to a teammate, a fourth of a second-round picks yards to a teammate, a fifth of a third-round picks yards to a teammate and so on I believe that you can get a rough idea of a "truer" value of a player's market share as it relates to predicting NFL success.

I think there's a fair argument that it's not a good adjustment, as that modification gives both Odell Beckham (44%) and Jarvis Landry (51%) an unbelievably high market share... though the idea is to predict if people outperform their draft position and they both certainly did—Landry ranks 2nd of 34 receivers drafted since 1994 in his generalized draft position in receiving yards. And Odell ranks first, with 29 more yards than Randy Moss.

To the extent that it should modify our expectations relative to draft position and not our expectations in general, then that process doesn't seem so bad.

In order to see if I was just lucky to hit on Beckham and I wasn't just trying to stretch things in favor of Michael Thomas, I looked at all the draft prospects drafted in the first four rounds between 2004 and 2014 and applied the same process, except I also gave credit for playing with a draft pick in the following year (and discounted the effect for them by a round). Ohio State doesn't have skill players projected to go in the first several rounds next year that would take yards away from Thomas, so we won't have to make that adjustment for him.

If we use PFR's approximate value metric to identify busts and hits, then 50% of the receivers in the samples were hits for where they were picked and the other busts. That's a good start because it gives us a baseline to see if this provides us with any added value at all.

The use of age-adjusted market share helps us immensely; 60% of the receivers who produce above their expected market share of yards hit (40% bust), while only 33% of the receivers who do not hit their expected market share will provide value (67% bust). Those numbers are both suspiciously round, so let me be clear on sample size—there were 35 receivers who passed the market share test and 221 who did not.

If we give players partial credit for their teammates like described above, 62% of the players you add to the process will hit. That's a nice marginal increase in accuracy and despite the fact that it would have encouraged you to select a player like Anthony Gonzalez in the first round when you originally would not have, it also would encourage picks like Julio Jones, Michael Floyd or Jeremy Maclin in the first, Alshon Jeffery or DeSean Jackson in the second, Andre Caldwell or Markus Wheaton in the third, or Austin Collie or Jarius Wright in the fourth—€”and it much more likely was going to help you by selecting those players than hurt you by selecting Gonzalez or Justin Hunter.

The players from the last two drafts not included in this confirmation step, and the ones you would have picked under this adjustment of course include Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, but also Amari Cooper, Sammy Watkins, Nelson Agholor, Marqise Lee and Brandin Cooks.

Functionally, it doubles the number of prospects that your metrics will encourage you to pick while maintaining or increasing its accuracy.

With that in mind, if we adjust Thomas' numbers for likely top 20 pick Ezekiel Elliot, likely top 75 pick Braxton Miller, likely top 100 pick Nick Vannett and late-round Jalin Marshall, Thomas' market share rises to 41%, which is right where it needs to be—his effective receiving yardage for the purpose of this exercise go from 781 yards to 1025. With only 2,454 passing yards in the Ohio State offense, that's a good chunk.

I think that, in addition to his fantastic touchdown share, the analytic evidence is in favor of Thomas, not against him.

If you're curious, this doesn't change the conclusions that the metrics gave us for Josh Doctson (who gains 32 yards this way) or Corey Coleman (who gains 215 yards, but is already a metric superstar). There is only one other prospect this year who this materially impacts, which we'll talk about when we get to him.

The upcoming combine will be important for a player like Thomas. Perceived as relatively slow for a potential first-round receiver, he may have more to do in the proving ground in Indy than most. Add in the fact that he doesn't seem to have a lot of vertical lift and the combine could make or break his first-day potential.

Here are a range of expected outcomes for Thomas:

Outcomes

Height

Weight

40 Yard Dash

20 Yard Split

10 Yard Split

Bench Press

Vert

Broad Jump

Short Shuttle

Three Cone

Best

6'4"

217

4.43

2.52

1.52

18

39"

10'9"

4

6.9

Good

6'3.5"

213

4.47

2.54

1.53

17

37.5"

10'5"

4.2

6.95

Median

6'3"

210

4.5

2.56

1.55

15

36"

10'

4.25

7

Bad

6'2.5"

205

4.53

2.59

1.56

12

34.5"

9'10"

4.35

7.15

Worst

6'2"

200

4.57

2.6

1.58

8

33"

9'7"

4.4

7.2

Usage Patterns

Once again, I'll be using the usage patterns from Matt Harmon's reception perception project to give you an idea of how Ohio State used him. As a recap, from the Josh Doctson scouting report:

This doesn't tell us a whole lot, but I've been able to create Similarity Scores using Matt Harmon's research. He has logged over 200 routes for 30 NFL receivers and currently 10 draft-eligible wide receivers (more NFL and college receivers to come) and while I may be able to later on create "proposed usage/role" scores for college receivers with more data, I can tell you which NFL receivers each college prospect most closely mirrors in terms of usage.

This isn't part of the grade, but it does let us know how college coaches used their prospect and whose game they hoped to mirror. SimScores range from 0-100, and the 90+ scores are the most interesting. Some college WRs have no NFL players whose SimScore is over 90+ and some with a great many.

Michael Thomas' 90+ SimScore receivers are Stevie Johnson, Odell Beckham, Demaryius Thomas, Charles Johnson, Dwayne Bowe and Davante Adams. This is a disparate group of receivers but it comes from the fact that Thomas ran a very typical NFL route tree, but with fewer deep routes—namely posts and go routes.

He made up for it with increased incidences of every route, but in particular with an emphasis on curl routes—though nothing like Corey Coleman's dependency on the route (he ran it more than twice as often as an average NFL receiver, and more often than any individual NFL receiver charted). Otherwise, he ran both in-breaking and out-breaking routes as often as you'd find in the NFL, at both intermediate and short levels.

Miscellany

Michael Thomas is a good and willing blocker, showing physicality, leverage and good punch with his hands. He identifies his assignment well and drives through the opposing defender. He shows strength in these moments and wins when he's locked on.

Unfortunately, though he is good when getting to his assignment and latching on, he does a poor job divining the correct angle to the defender and he can have issues latching on. Sometimes those issues come from a lack of focus and will shed a defender to get to a new defender when he hasn't finished his assignment. At other times, his ability to maintain a block after the initial contact suffers from those far more used to slipping blocks than he is at maintaining them.

Still, he's largely a good blocker and the best of the three I've evaluated so far.

There are some concerns about the fact that Michael Thomas had to sit a year (2013) because he needed to learn the playbook. I've tried double-checking the reason for his redshirt sophomore year (he played in 2012 and caught three passes for 22 yards), and while none of the answers I've gotten are inconsistent, they also aren't completely consistent with each other.

CBS says there are academic reasons, while other evidence suggests that Urban Meyer was anxious about wasting a year and may have felt he wasted Thomas' freshman year. Still, others say what has been said: that he didn't know the offense. Instead, Thomas may have been redshirted because they brought in depth from the Juco ranks in the form of Philly Brown.

Other draft prospects from this class and previous classes were redshirted under Meyer and I don't think it's an indication that Thomas had trouble picking up the playbook so much as they felt it didn't make sense to burn a redshirt when they had Philly Brown and Devin Smith—knowing that they would have Thomas in a future year when they would have neither Brown nor Smith.

Still, that worry is there. I have a lot of trouble believing that this will be an issue in the NFL because of how well he's taken coaching and how polished he is as a receiver, something that is unlikely to come to someone slow on the uptake. While one may read the spacing and intuition issues as possible evidence that he doesn't have what it takes mentally to be a receiver, I think that would be the wrong read. Instead, his continued refinement of the position is strong positive evidence he can catch on to things quickly.

Conclusion

I would compare Michael Thomas to Marvin Jones. Their mutual ability to run off-speed (or on-speed) pair well with their natural craftiness both before and during the route. They have mutual problems at the release, but more than make up for it throughout the process. They have similar issues (especially for Jones coming out) at the catch point, aren't amazing with contested catches and have good hands otherwise. They have a similar track record extending for the ball—which is to say occasional issues, but generally with a good catch radius. They track the ball in similar ways and create after the catch despite what many thought was limited speed and athleticism (and both share underrated agility).

If you don't think that's worth a first-round pick, I understand. But Marvin Jones is actually performing about as well as a late-first round pick, with 51 yards a game this last season—just above the YPG of a third-year player picked in the second-half of the first round— and he represents the median outcome, while Reggie Wayne represents a ceiling. While the floor could easily be said to be "out of the league," like for any receiver, a more realistic floor may be Armon Binns.

The Marvin Jones comparison is probably even more complimentary than the statistics indicate, as he was poised for a breakout year before his injury and then lost targets to the incredibly talented Tyler Eifert. At any rate, that this prototype of receiver can range the comparison chart between Reggie Wayne and Armon Binns shows the folly of limiting a prospect's upside merely by their perceived athletic ability.

Thomas not only shows (to me) excellent athletic ability, but can refine his game to be a high-level receiver. That he shows consistent improvement throughout his career is proof that a development curve can be wide-ranging, and Thomas may be able to hit the upper end of that.

I like Michael Thomas a lot, and though I think the 23rd overall pick might be a little pricy for him, I wouldn't be upset if the Vikings traded into the bottom of the first round for him. He may not represent the prototype (despite his 6'1", 210-lb frame) but he gets open, gets catches and gets touchdowns.