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Michael Thomas' fantasy future hinges on landing spot

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Leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, each day NFL Fantasy will profile a prospect who could make a splash in fantasy next season. Today's subject is former Ohio State wide receiver Michael Thomas.

As one of the nation's premier college football programs, Ohio State seems to churn out several big names prospects on a regular basis. While star running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback-receiver convert Braxton Miller attract the headlines, wideout Michael Thomas is a solid prospect in his own right. As we near the draft, a great divide seems to have surfaced between opinions on Thomas. Some analysts regard him as the top receiver in the class, and issue comparisons to the best players in the NFL. In other circles, he is held out as one of the class' more overrated prospects. Glad that clears things up. As you ride on that tilt-a-whirl of a discussion on Thomas' stock, you'll likely find that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Full 2016 "Prospect a Day" list

Thomas' NFL.com draft profile

Strengths

2016 NFL DRAFT

Draft coverage:


     » Strong route-runner with disciplined approach 
     » Can get vertical when he's able to sell the underneath route 
     » Deceptive athlete after the catch 
     » Doesn't shy away from playing in tight coverage

We often talk about small receivers like Sterling Shepard as strong route-runners. That makes sense as their lack of height, weight or both forces them to rely more on technique to work free from defenders. Even more impressive is when a big receiver shows the signs of being a high-level route runner on tape, which Thomas does.

Thomas consistently incorporates nuanced moves into his routes, far more than we normally see from a college receiver. He's able to sell the vertical route before breaking into the shallow areas of the field, and vice versa. There are plenty of head fakes, stutter steps and deception moves in Thomas' arsenal.

His strong route running even helps him function as a downfield threat despite a 40-yard dash time in just the 29th percentile among receivers tested since 1999. In the Reception Perception evaluation of the 2016 class, Thomas had the highest Success Rate Vs. Coverage on go routes. Despite a lack of pure straight-line speed, his ability to sell the defender on the idea that he's staying underneath before going vertical affords him more space over the top than you'd think. 

Outside of pure in-route play, Thomas certainly profiles as a future NFL contributor. He comes with an aggressive mindset both after the catch and playing tight coverage. When he's decisive and runs with intent, Thomas is a load to bring down in the open field, and can make multiple defenders miss.

Weaknesses


     » Built like traditional X-receiver; doesn't excel in contested catches 
     » Struggles with timing his hands and winning passes outside of his frame 
     » Often gets too caught up in his stop and start movements on film 
     » Age, production don't portend a high ceiling

While all that strong route running ability is normally a sweet icing on the cake for a receiver of Thomas' dimensions, therein lies the trouble with his evaluation. He's a confusing prospect, because he's the epitome of a big receiver that wins in the "small game" -- after the catch and earning separation -- but doesn't consistently win in the "big game."

Thomas doesn't have issues with defenders getting physical with him, but he just does not win enough contested catches for a player his size. He does not present a big strike zone to give his quarterback some flexibility with accuracy. Thomas' arm length checked in at just the 53rd percentile since 1999 and his vertical only the 41st. There is also some awkwardness in how Thomas tracks passes outside of his frame, and he can mistime firing his hands up or out to win those. His contested catch conversion rate in Reception Perception came in at just 50 percent, which was below the class average.

Some of Thomas' other combine measurements were more optimistic than expected, with his three-cone drill and broad jump checking in at the 74th and 82nd percentile, respectively. That quickness and agile movement shows up in his determined strong work after the catch. However, Thomas often looks like he's thinking too much through his motions in-route and he gets caught up in his stop and start movements. Everyone fawns over that long touchdown against Virginia Tech in the opening week, but that play is a pretty perfect example of Thomas' belabored, exaggerated moves in routes. You can throw more blame on the cornerback for falling for that than Thomas showing precise execution. His nuance and polish as a route runner is a positive indicator in his profile, but because he must rely on it so much, he can overdo it.

While metrics alone don't paint the full story of a wide receiver prospect, they certainly help paint a tangible scale for the range of outcomes for a prospect's pro career. As Kevin Cole points out, Thomas' older age and lack of career production are troubling points in his profile. Those aren't damning aspects for this player, but it does at least raise questions about what kind of ceiling he offers. Those same concerns are played out on tape.

Ideal NFL fantasy fits


     » Atlanta Falcons
     » Cincinnati Bengals
     » New York Giants
     » Dallas Cowboys
     » Minnesota Vikings
     » New Orleans Saints

I personally shy away from player comparisons because I'm bad at them, but one of the best made so far this draft season was Rumord Johnny aligning Michael Thomas with Michael Crabtree. Crabtree wasted away in San Francisco with a "see it throw it" passer in Colin Kaepernick. So much so that most of the NFL community was ready to throw him on the scrap heap prior to last season. Yet, in reality his nuanced and technical approach to the game was just such a poor fit with Kaepernick that it wasn't immediately evident that Crabtree still had plenty to offer. It was no surprise that in 2015 when he moved to a team with a more anticipatory, timing-based passer, his career took a turn for the better.

Michael Thomas compares so favorably to Crabtree from a route-running perspective and deceptively strong work after the catch, it's fair to assert he'll need a similar set of circumstances to thrive in fantasy.

The usual receiver-starved landing spots all need their lip service here. Matt Ryan and Andy Dalton at least bring more than adequate anticipation to the table, and would fit well with Thomas in that regard. Atlanta in particular would present a nice opportunity, as Thomas could slide into the role of possession receiver that Roddy White held in the later years of his career.

Tony Romo is one of the more accurate passers in the NFL, and would be able to hit Thomas on those timing-based routes he runs so well. The Giants run a West Coast-laden system with Ben McAdoo manning the controls. The non-Odell Beckham receivers are tasked with working underneath and needing plus run after the catch ability, so Thomas fits what they look for.

The two sneaky strong lading spots for Thomas' services could be New Orleans and Minnesota. The Ohio State product could help fill the current void left by Marques Colston's departure as the big underneath receiver. No quarterback embodies accuracy and anticipation better than Drew Brees. Thomas could also immediately snag top-dog duties in Minnesota. While he doesn't bring the dominant contested catch-winning boundary receiver they need, his route portfolio is a near perfect fit for Teddy Bridgewater.

Early fantasy draft projection

Much like Crabtree, Michael Thomas might not have the ceiling of a top receiver in the NFL, but he profiles as a strong long-time complementary receiver. In a best case scenario, he can help shoulder the passing game load as a No. 2 on a team with a high-end No. 1 receiver. His route-running acumen would work great against secondary cornerbacks and help hide some of the questionable parts of his evaluation.

However, much like his comparison, Thomas has the skill-set of a receiver who could easily be derailed from a statistical perspective if placed in a subpar situation. Without some of the skills needed to create on his own, he could end up as a volatile asset if he and his quarterback or offensive construction aren't a match.

Michael Thomas is currently a mid-first round pick in rookie draft ADP, according to DynastyLeagueFootball.com. In my early working, I've found owning a pick in the 1.01 to 1.05 range or taking multiple bites from the proverbial apple in the 1.09 to 2.03 range are the preferable strategies. As such, if there's someone else that loves Thomas more than you in your dynasty league, feel free to explore a trade to move back or up into a range of picks with more clarity. There are still enough question marks in Thomas' evaluation to worry about projecting him year over year as a top-15 receiver in fantasy.

Thomas may not have the high-end potential some of his biggest believers hold for him, but he's certainly a worthy late first- or second-round pick in the NFL Draft. He has the skills to function as a long-term No. 2 possession receiver for his next team and hold an important role in the offense. Just how much that matters for fantasy football is another story entirely.

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-- Follow Matt on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB

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