Michael Thomas has had his eye on the New Orleans Saints for a while.
Thomas, who met with the Saints at the NFL combine and Ohio State’s pro day, knew the Saints had a need at receiver after they parted ways with Marques Colston.
And the last time he played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, he caught seven passes for 66 yards and a touchdown as the Buckeyes beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on the way to the national championship.
Few NFL draft prospects get a chance to go to their first choice, but Thomas knew he wanted to catch passes from Drew Brees, and the Saints granted his wish by taking him with the 47th pick of the draft, right in the middle of the second round.
“They just lost Marques, they have a lot of speed guys around, the offense is tremendous, the coaching staff is tremendous,” Thomas said. “I wouldn’t have chosen anywhere else. But you can’t pick; they pick you.”
Thomas knew he had a chance. Even though the Saints didn’t bring him in for a predraft visit, he knew New Orleans receivers coach John Morton watched him closely at pro day, and Morton stayed in contact with Thomas throughout the process leading up to the draft.
That pro day visit to Columbus yielded another player: The Saints traded up to grab Ohio State safety Vonn Bell with the 61st pick Friday night. New Orleans considered both Thomas and Bell at the 47th pick, but the Saints had a slightly higher grade on the wide receiver.
New Orleans saw the potential to replace Colston in the 6-foot-3, 216-pound Thomas, who has excellent hands, the size to work over the middle of the field and the ability to make contested catches in the red zone.
The Saints have a promising 1-2 punch at receiver with Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead, but New Orleans was looking for a big-bodied receiver who has some of the same skills as Brandon Coleman, who flashed potential when Colston went down with an injury at the end of the 2015 season.
“Similar-type players that way: large, they’ll compete, big players, strong hands,” coach Sean Payton said. “It’s in no way a reflection on how we feel about Brandon, he’s just a graded player who had a skill set that we felt really strong about. … We had him graded really high in that position group.”
Thomas posted nearly identical seasons of 50-plus catches, 700-plus yards and nine touchdowns apiece the past two years at Ohio State.
A student of Colston’s game, Thomas thinks he can fill a similar role in the offense.
“He was a big, physical receiver, just like myself,” Thomas said. “When they let him go, someone has to fill that role. It’s football. It’s a game of chess. Everyone has to make those moves, and he was a tremendous part of their success. As a kid, I remember watching ‘Monday Night Football’ and him make a ton of plays with Drew Brees.”
Thomas, whose uncle is former No. 1 pick and NFL star Keyshawn Johnson, also knows plenty about Payton. Johnson spent two seasons in Dallas with Payton as offensive coordinator, catching more than 70 balls each season.
Johnson, who had a similar frame, has been a key part of Thomas’ career all the way from high school through his time at Ohio State. Johnson was at the house with the rest of Thomas’ family when he got the call from the Saints, and Thomas plans to keep picking Johnson’s brain as he makes the transition to the NFL.
“A great influence,” Thomas said. “He was a No. 1 draft pick at the same position. You have to pick that guy’s brain.”
Thomas responded to the Saints’ pick by tweeting at Brees, trying to start building a connection with his new quarterback — the one he wanted to play with most.
“I tweeted him right away,” Thomas said. “I feel like a lot of guys aren’t really on my level, and with Drew Brees back behind me under center, with the coaches there, I’m going to have a chance to prove myself.”