METAIRIE, La. -- Michael Thomas' 274 catches over the past two years? Remarkable, ridiculous, unprecedented.
The fact that no other New Orleans Saints wide receiver has more than 47 catches combined over the past two seasons? Well, that’s a problem.
The Saints scored by adding pass-catching tight end Jared Cook in free agency last year. But they haven’t been so lucky at wide receiver -- despite kicking the tires on guys like Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall and Cameron Meredith over the past two years and using a third-round draft pick on Tre'Quan Smith in 2018.
This is the year they need to fix that.
This year’s NFL draft class is loaded with high-end receiver talent -- with seven or eight guys in the mix to become first-round draft picks. So the Saints could possibly land someone like Clemson’s Tee Higgins if he falls to them with the No. 24 pick (as he did in ESPN analyst Todd McShay’s latest mock draft).
Or they could pounce in free agency or the trade market -- where price tags for wide receivers might be depressed a little bit because of that loaded draft class.
Saints general manager Mickey Loomis declined to label the wide receiver position as a “must” priority when he met the media during the Senior Bowl last month. And he insisted that the Saints like their young receiver depth -- which includes possible expanded roles next season for undrafted 2019 rookies Emmanuel Butler, Lil'Jordan Humphrey and All-Pro kick returner Deonte Harris.
“I think we have a group of wide receivers that we really like,” Loomis said. “We’re in the business of improving our team any way we can. And your question [about wide receiver being a top priority] is a good one. And yet part of that is dictated by what becomes available and how do we fit it in our roster. Those are questions and answers; we’re not there yet. We've got a long way to go here."
But none of the young receivers on the current roster is a No. 2. Smith hasn't developed into one so far, with just 18 catches in the 2019 regular season and none in their playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings. And the closest thing New Orleans has had to a No. 2 over the past three years, veteran Ted Ginn Jr., will become an unrestricted free agent in March. He turns 35 in April.
So, yeah, it’s a must.
The Saints were able to make due well enough over the past two regular seasons to go 13-3 each year -- leaning heavily on Thomas, running back Alvin Kamara and Cook. But their lack of reliable wide receivers really hurt them in each of their past two playoff exits.
New Orleans’ two biggest pass plays in its 26-20 overtime loss to the Vikings last month were a 20-yard TD pass from Drew Brees to third-string quarterback Taysom Hill and a 50-yard pass from Hill to Harris (who had a total of six catches for 24 yards in the regular season).
In the previous year’s NFC Championship Game loss to the Los Angeles Rams, the Saints’ two touchdown passes were caught by Hill and seldom-used tight end Garrett Griffin -- who has only one other catch in his career. Earlier in that game, undrafted tight end Dan Arnold dropped a pass in the end zone. And the infamous missed pass interference call toward the end of the game came on a pass intended for seldom-used receiver/kick returner Tommylee Lewis.
The Saints probably don’t have enough ammunition to target an elite receiver this offseason. They’re already slammed against the salary cap. They don’t pick until 24th in Round 1 of the draft, and they don’t have a second-round pick. So free agents such as Amari Cooper and A.J. Green and top draft prospects such as Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb might be out of reach.
But the Saints don’t need another version of Thomas, necessarily. They just need another reliable target -- preferably someone who can line up in the slot and catch the kind of high-percentage, midrange throws that Brees has been feasting on in recent years.
Think Lance Moore and Willie Snead types.
Even if Brees retires, potential replacement QB Teddy Bridgewater has also proved to be more of a high-percentage thrower so far in his career. So a free agent who plays a lot in the slot, such as Emmanuel Sanders, Randall Cobb, Danny Amendola or even Nelson Agholor might make more sense financially than downfield threats such as Robby Anderson or Breshad Perriman.
Likewise in the draft, a big target such as the 6-foot-4 Higgins might make more sense than a burner like Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III.
But let’s face it -- the Saints could probably benefit from any of the above, as well as potential first-round draft picks such as Colorado’s Laviska Shenault Jr., LSU’s Justin Jefferson, Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk, TCU’s Jalen Reagor or several other prospects.
Because as spectacular as “Can’t Guard Mike” has been for the Saints, guarding Mike is exactly what defenses will keep trying to do unless the Saints give them someone else to worry about.