The team released veteran Deuce McAllister, who handled those duties for the better part of the past eight seasons before serious knee injuries limited his effectiveness. But fantasy leaguers had to wonder how Payton's view of his backfield situation would impact Thomas' value in 2009.
Despite their needs on defense, the Saints were even rumored to have a great deal of interest in Chris "Beanie" Wells in the first round of the draft. Again, that left a lot of people scratching their heads -- did Payton not have enough faith in Thomas to take over a greater role in the offense?
Well, the draft came and went without the selection of a running back.
Much to the delight of countless owners, those decisions made Thomas the clear-cut favorite to open the season atop the depth chart.
A non-factor for most of the first nine weeks of the season, Thomas broke out on the stat sheets after the Saints were forced to keep Reggie Bush on the sidelines due to knee issues. Thomas, who was owned in a mere 39 percent of NFL.com leagues as late as Week 12, recorded a combined 19 receptions, 677 scrimmage yards and found the end zone nine times from Week 11-16.
Those combined numbers made him a better option than LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, Brian Westbrook (and every other running back other than DeAngelo Williams and Michael Turner) in that span. It was an enormous feat for a runner who was on a mere 15 percent of NFL.com fantasy rosters when the regular season started.
That percentage will no doubt swell into the 90s when the 2009 campaign begins.
In an effort to prepare himself for a larger role, Thomas added 10 pounds of bulk and is now over 220 pounds. Payton also admits that while he did want to add a power runner months earlier, the search for one is now over.
"I think the guy we're looking for may already be in the building," Payton told the Baton Rouge Advocate in reference to Thomas.
While Thomas won't be a true featured back, he will see more than enough of the workload to produce solid numbers. Bush will continue to see his share of carries, but his skill set makes him more valuable in passing situations and as an explosive return man on special teams. That leaves Thomas to see early-down carries and those all-important goal-line looks.
Bush is also coming off microfracture knee surgery, and has missed 10 games over the last two seasons due to injuries. So despite his versatility, he's no lock to be active in all 16 games. Much like he did last season, Thomas could see even more work if Bush's track record of ailments continues.
Thomas has also been ultra-productive when he's seen a prominent role in the Saints offense. In five career games when he's had 15 or more carries, Thomas has averaged 149 scrimmage yards and scored eight total touchdowns. Those are incredible numbers and show just how productive Thomas can be when given the chance.
A surefire second- or third-round selection in fantasy drafts, Thomas should be considered a high-end No. 2 runner.