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There are many ways to describe him, but maybe it's just time to call Saints All-Pro Michael Thomas the best wide receiver in football

By Jim Trotter | Published Jan. 10, 2019

There is a passion that borders on fury when Michael Thomas plays football. The New Orleans Saints' All-Pro wide receiver does everything with a heightened sense of urgency, whether going full speed in a walkthrough or all out in a game. Get between him and his goal of being one of the greatest to play the position and you could find yourself in the trainer's room, as coach Sean Payton found out last season.

Thursdays are typically when the team installs its third-down package for that week's game, and Payton sometimes lines up at cornerback to jam his receivers at the line of scrimmage, in preparation for press coverage they're likely to see that weekend. In the past, he'd done it with Marques Colston, Joe Horn and many other receivers, so he didn't think twice when he positioned himself opposite Thomas.

"When Mike released on me, I felt like I was in a car wreck," Payton said late last month at the team's practice facility in Metairie, La. "The physicality he displayed was different than anything I had ever felt. My finger went sideways, like it was dislocated, and my chest was killing me. I felt like I was in one of those 25-mph car crashes.

"Usually a receiver is going to use a swim move or make you miss, but Mike has one speed. His mentality is: Whoever is in front of me, you're in my way. I was a faceless opponent to him. I haven't pressed him anymore because I don't want to break any bones."

It's been said that Thomas plays with a chip on his shoulder, driven by not being drafted until the second round in 2016, the 47th player overall and sixth receiver off the board. While there is an element of truth to that, those close to him say you must broaden your focus to see what truly fuels him. It is more of a desire to prove himself right rather than others wrong.

"If he had been the second pick of the draft, he was still going to be just like what we see right now," Payton said. "It's not this fury because others were taken ahead of him. It's because this is his bar, his standard."

Payton raised his hand to eye level and added: "It's more about wanting to be the No. 1 receiver in the NFL than it is about where he was taken in his draft class. His standard is much higher than that."

It's hard to know with Thomas because he doesn't open the door wide enough for you to see all the way inside. He is soft-spoken and polite but clearly guarded. There is a conflict within him that wants to receive recognition for living up to his expectations but not liking what that attention can bring and how it can infringe on his privacy.

To get a better understanding of just who he is, we went to those who were present at different legs of his athletic journey -- from undersized and underused child athlete to determined teenager to humbled collegian to NFL star. Their words paint a picture of Thomas that is simultaneously complete yet still developing.


Michael's father

My brother is Keyshawn Johnson. When he was at USC, I used to take Mike to his practices and let him sit on the field and run around on the sideline. He was only 2 or 3 years old at the time, but he loved it. He would dress up as a football player for Halloween and always talk about the game. He first wanted to play tackle football when he was 5 or 6, but he was too young, so we put him in soccer.

When he was finally old enough to play, he was small for his age and didn't get a lot of playing time. Some of his coaches might have been afraid he would get hurt. He was a must-play -- one of those 5 to 10 kids on every team you must play at least a quarter each week because they paid their money to be on the team.

He didn't become a starter until his senior year at Taft Charter High School, but the foundation for that was laid during his junior year. They weren't playing him much, but he would still be out there every day because he loved the game. I used to tell him: "Practices are your games. Don't worry about all these other dudes that are supposed to be this and that; you're going to be better than them anyway. Let them have theirs."

We used to talk about it driving home from practice every day, but I knew we had to come up with a plan because they were a running team and he wasn't playing a lot.

Bigger, faster, stronger -- that became the plan.

Once we figured that out, it was: "OK, we're going to work. We've just got to change and make it work." I built a weight room at our house and filled it with equipment. He would be in there at all hours. [Keyshawn] would come by at 11 or 12 at night and Mike would be in there working. I used to tell Mike, "I got you if this is what you want to do. I always wanted to play and didn't, so now that you're playing, I'm playing through you."

He was driven. We kicked it into overdrive the summer after his junior year, with camps and 7-on-7 leagues. We went in with a plan to catch up to everyone else by the time the summer was over.


Taft Charter High School QB and teammate

We both transferred to Taft High School our junior year. I was ineligible that year and he was kind of in the same boat because he wasn't playing. So we had a similar mentality where we were looking at each other like, We better be ready for our senior season because all of our dreams are riding on that one season.

During lunch time and after school, when you had a little bit of a dead period before practice, we would work out by ourselves. It was all about preparation with me and him. He was extremely competitive. All he needed was an opportunity to showcase his abilities.

Our school was kind of built on kids transferring in and transferring out, and the week before our first game, our star running back transferred to Crenshaw High School. The game plan from that day forward was that we were going to throw the football a lot. Our first game was against Dorsey High, which was a big rivalry for us because a lot of guys from our team were from that area. I think we lost the game, but there were a couple of throws I made to him. He was just staring at me the whole game like, Throw the damn ball at me every single time. That set the tone for the rest of the year. He was the No. 1 target in every game and, I think, he had 100 yards receiving in every one of them.

It was almost easy to play quarterback with a guy like him out there. I don't think it was expected in the beginning that he would dominate, but you could see it coming in the summer. That was when camps started to become a real thing, and since we were on the same high school team, we would throw together when we went to camps. He dominated those camps, but since there wasn't much film on him, people just said, "Oh, he'll be a good wide receiver for you" -- almost as an afterthought. They didn't realize he was special.

Going into his senior year, he would walk around all day with those grippers that you squeeze to build up your forearms. People would kind of be like, "Dude, what are you doing?" He'd be like, "Just wait till you see what's going to happen." It was like he was plotting something. People would crack up because they had no idea why he was doing it, then you see him ripping the ball away from defenders. His catch percentage now is a reflection of how much he prides himself on having strong hands.

He's built on hard work. Even though his bloodline is pretty incredible, with Keyshawn (the No. 1 overall pick of the Jets in 1996), he wasn't just born this way. He's all about hard work.

He's always had big expectations for himself, but sort of silently. He's not motivated by money; he's motivated by the goals that he set for himself and kind of chasing them. They're the kind of goals that people mostly laugh at -- like his senior year, he wanted to have 2,000 yards receiving and 30 touchdowns. Even though he didn't get that, he came awful close (with a state-leading 1,656 yards and 21 touchdowns).

He does a great job of working hard when no one is watching. That's how he's going to be remembered when it's all said and done. A lot of guys make sure people are watching them when they're working hard, but he's not really like that. When we started out working out hard together in high school, it was truly when no one was watching. Film room at lunchtime, sixth period just playing catch and working on grip strength.

Mike is fueled by achieving his goals. His entire life, he has had Keyshawn next to him, and it's like, Oh, Keyshawn is this, Keyshawn is that. That's your uncle. You're not going to be that. Then, (he) sets out to silently prove you wrong.

It was the same thing when he went to Ohio State: Oh, he's just going to be another guy. Then he's catching passes in the corner of the end zone in a [College Football Playoff game vs. Alabama].

I really do think he's fueled by people who have told him that he's not going to be his uncle, or he's not going to be this. Especially when you're from Los Angeles. There are a lot of people in Los Angeles that grow up that get labels put on them, like they're never going to reach a certain point or they're not as good as someone else from L.A. Mike is a perfect example of that.


Fork Union Military Academy roommate and Ohio State teammate

They paired us up as roommates because both of us had already committed to attend Ohio State. We didn't really know of each other beforehand, and we really didn't get along initially because, at times, we pulled the Big Man on Campus attitude toward each other when talking about Ohio State, as far as things we were going to do, how we were recruited, what number recruit we were. We really didn't jell until later on in our careers at Ohio State.

During our one semester at Fork Union, Mike was a dawg from the first time we got on the field together. He and I had that Ohio State [recruitment] title behind our names, so everyone already expected us to be pretty good. But for the most part, everyone on the team was a baller.

At that time, Robert Lockhart was our best -- not only receiver, but probably our best player. But when guys started to say things like that or make assumptions, I guess, it kind of got under Mike's skin, and you could see him start to do little extra things, not just on the field but off the field. I would always see him going to the weight room earlier on our off days. He was so competitive.

When it came to trying to make big plays in a game, he wanted the ball.

One of his big [goals] was that he wanted to play as a freshman. At the time, Devin Smith was "the guy" at Ohio State, as far as receivers, and rightfully so. Mike and I went to the Wisconsin game one Saturday (in 2011, when both were still at Fork Union), and Devin caught the winning touchdown from Braxton Miller as a freshman. You could just tell Mike wanted that. He wanted to be the go-to guy. He wanted to be the guy you could look to for the big play in critical situations.

He used to try to get the best out of me by saying little stuff and inferring that Braxton was always going to be "the guy" at quarterback at Ohio State, that I would never play there. He didn't say it in a way to try to hurt my feelings; he would say it to motivate me when he felt I wasn't working as hard or I was slacking off.

I did the same thing to him. I said things like, "Devin had two touchdowns today. They call him Mr. Deep Threat. You know Ohio State is only known for fast receivers."

Mike has great speed, but he's not a burner. He's not a guy you think of that's going to take the top off the defense. I just wanted to get under his skin because he was always getting under mine by mentioning Braxton. You (could) tell it motivated him and pushed him that much harder.


Ohio State strength and conditioning coach

Our staff got here in January of 2012, and Mike had just arrived as a midyear transfer because he went to military school. When he first stepped on campus, he was 6-foot-2, 182 pounds, at 9 percent body fat with the skin calipers. That's not real good.

After the winter program that year, I wrote this -- word for word -- in my report: "Needs to mature. Completely blindsided by this s---. Looks like a deer in headlights. Too much form running and not enough explosiveness. Needs to get strong, be tough and go."

That was after two months. He wasn't used to the way we were training. He wasn't used to the tempo of how we were training. He wasn't used to the intensity of training. He was used to accountability because he was in a military school, but he probably was evaluating everything, like, Ugh, this is too hard. Do I really want to do this? His picture of what it was supposed to be like was completely different than what it actually was. When stuff got hard, he gave in. We use the words grinding and toughness, and there was none of that with him. I don't want to say he was scared, but ...

The first year, he got some false hope of how good he was after being named Player of the Game in the spring game. He ended up playing sparingly as a freshman and was so not ready for [what we were doing].

We redshirted him his sophomore year. I've been doing this 30 years and I've never seen that happen to anyone after a healthy freshman season, but that's how bad he was on the field. He wasn't ready for it.

We lost a really close game to Clemson in the Orange Bowl that season, and afterward, a bunch of seniors got up -- guys who had been in our program for two years -- and said some really, really good things, like how they wished they had been [with us] since they were freshmen. Mike really was mesmerized by these seniors' words in the locker room.

When we reported back in January, two weeks later, he and I had a meeting about goals and where you're at and where you need to be and how to get there. Objective goals. Mike closed the door and sat down and said, "Coach, I'm going to be the best wide receiver to ever come out of here. And I'm going to work. So whatever you need to do to me, whatever extra I need to do, you won't hear a peep out of me. I'm going to be a leader. I'm going to be a grown man."

Right there was kind of an epiphany -- at least for me -- that he was going to take the next step in terms of training. I know he had the same meeting with Coach Urban Meyer, and Coach Meyer had a meeting with Mike's dad and told him pretty much what we all thought: "He's immature, he's not ready, he's not tough enough." I think his dad and his uncle got in his grill a little bit, and Mike came back completely different. When I say completely different, I'm talking about possessed. What you see now is how he came back in the winter of 2014. Possessed -- possessed possessed.

Looking at his measurables in March of 2014, he made ridiculous improvements. He gained 18 pounds, all muscle. His body fat went from 9 percent to 4 percent. You're talking about a complete metamorphosis of his body, and it was all attitude and effort and training toughness and determination that you've got to have. It's almost like a switch went on.

Here we thought it was time for him to [transfer] -- Hey, you're not going to be able to play here; you don't fit what we want wide receivers to be like. But that winter we saw a change. It was like he went to see the Wizard of Oz and got some new gears. He started to become a man, a grown man, in terms of football.

He's possessed with being the best.


New Orleans Saints head coach

The one thing I remember in his pre-draft evaluation was the physicality in his run after the catch. You just saw him break a lot of tackles, and you saw a physical nature to how he played, a rugged nature.

From Day 1 with us, he has been a passionate, passionate player. You can have a walkthrough and everyone is kind of trotting, but Mike is wired in such a way that he's in tune with wanting to please, wanting to get the details down to where you notice it, so he goes full speed at all times. Darren Sproles was that way in walkthroughs. There was only one speed with him, and Mike is like that. He wants to get it right in the run game as well as the pass game.

In December, we were in that tough division game at Carolina. It's low-scoring and when we need a big run, we shift the tight end over and we run "Press 32 X Duo." We run it to Mike and he blocks the safety at the point of attack and Alvin Kamara goes 16 yards for the touchdown. You watch that clip, and see Mike meet Kamara in the end zone, and he was so proud he was at the point of attack. The difference on the play was his block because you don't have touchdown runs like that in our league unless you're blocking the force correctly, and he did. It was significant.

He's extremely prideful, which is a good trait, but sometimes he's hard on himself. He has these quiet moments where he'll just turn away and take a really deep breath. He'll have these decompression moments. There's such an expectation level because his standards are so high for himself that he wants to get it immediately.

His biggest fear and stress each week is the first day, when I hand him the game plan. There's a pressure to learn it all again. It's like the teacher says, "Your test on Sunday is going to include ... ," and by the end of the week, we'll have a walkthrough and do 50 routes on air. And he will be like boom, boom, boom -- like, "I got it."

It's a process and he recognizes it. On Wednesdays, I'll get on him and say, "You've got to take a few more breaths now; it's Wednesday. You're going to get it." But there's something that burns inside him that's different from a lot of guys.

I feel like we have a special relationship in that I understand him, and I know the pressure he feels each week when a game plan comes out. New game plan, some formations we tinker with a bit, and right away he wants to get those down and learn. He wants to please. If I tell him "hash plus 2" is your split, you'll see him write down every detail and highlight it and come out and line up at "hash plus 2" because he knows it's important to have that detail down. Sometimes it's a weakness because this is a game that's not played perfectly, and he'll have some of those competitive moments because his standard is such that he feels he needs to be perfect to play at the level he desires. Each guy is different in how they approach that, and he knows his preparation has to be on point during the week. So he learns it, but he spends time grinding on it.

When it comes to a ceiling for him, you name it. This is his second Pro Bowl as a starter, and I've seen improvement each year. Year 1, you leave him at one [position], then you have him play over in the slot. His route tree has expanded, and he has exceptional traffic hands.

So when it comes to a ceiling, you name it.


Editors: Andy Fenelon, Gennaro Filice | Illustration: Mary Jane Kim
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