Running back Pierre Thomas is accustomed to doubts. Too small and not fast enough, analysts told him all the way to the NFL.
Those criticisms prepared Thomas for this offseason: The Saints placed him on the trading block but never moved him, creating the potential of animosity in his relationship with the team.
So far, it hasn’t.
Instead, Thomas enters next week’s veteran minicamp ready to accomplish what he feels he has always done — prove doubters wrong, 1 yard at a time.
“I just sat back and waited to see what they wanted to do,” Thomas, 29, said this week about the possibility of being traded.
Last season, he led the Saints in rushing with 549 yards (3.7-yard average) and two touchdowns. He also caught 77 passes for 513 yards and three TDs.
Since arriving in 2007, Thomas has transformed into one of the most productive and celebrated Saints players, judging by the applause he received Wednesday night when he approached the batter’s box during the Ben Grubbs charity softball game.
It’s not known whether the Saints received, extended or rebuffed offers for Thomas, a former undrafted free agent entering his eighth NFL season, all with the Saints. But coach Sean Payton said during his end-of-season news conference that he felt Thomas “had one of his best years since he’s been here.”
The Saints, coming off last season’s NFC divisional-round playoff loss at Seattle, were expected to address the running game, but not like this.
The NFL’s No. 4 offense in 2013, as explosive as it was under quarterback Drew Brees, finished 25th in the league in rushing at 92.1 yards per game. This Saints were often forced to utilize screens and other short passes out of the backfield as hybrid running plays.
Thomas was the top option, leading all NFL running backs in receptions.
This offseason, Thomas signed a two-year extension through 2016, a deal worth up to $6.9 million with $2.4 million guaranteed. Then in early March, reports surfaced that the Saints were willing to part ways with Thomas, fellow running back Darren Sproles and receiver Lance Moore.
Within days, Moore was released, and Sproles was traded to Philadelphia.
Thomas, though, is still here with 2011 first-round pick Mark Ingram, who is hoping to take advantage of a less-crowded backfield. Also on the depth chart is second-year pro Khiry Robinson and third-year man Travaris Cadet, both former rookie free agents who made the roster out of training camp.
Thomas said he plans to continue to mentor younger players the same way former Saints great Deuce McAllister worked with him. But that doesn’t mean Thomas is ready to watch from the sideline.
“I’m still there, up there on the top level with some of these guys,” Thomas said. “I’m not dropping the ball, I’m not fumbling, I’m not out here getting negative yards. I’m always getting positive yards, always doing positive things on the field. It shows.”
Thomas said he still has a career goal of rushing for 1,000 yards in a season, a feat he feels confident he has the legs to carry. But he also realizes such a milestone is unlikely in the Saints’ multi-player backfield.
Thomas’ 147 carries last season matched his career high in 2009, when he finished with a career-high 793 yards. All of the NFL running backs to rush for more than 1,000 yards last season had at least 223 carries, including former Saints standout Reggie Bush (1,006).
Thomas ranks in the top 10 in five career categories with the Saints, including rushing (3,523) and total TDs (38).
His heroics secure, which include contributions to the Saints’ only Super Bowl victory in 2010, Thomas realizes he will have to compete for his future with the franchise.
“I stay level-headed out here, focused, making sure I do what I have to do,” he said. “Because every year, every day, I have to fight for my job.”