Michael Thomas is the best wide receiver Drew Brees has ever played with.
You want the ball in Thomas' hands. Often. He’s the surest shot at positive yardage, which is why, for the first time in Brees’ career, the New Orleans Saints offense has one player eating up a disproportionate amount of targets.
Thomas earns every pass that comes his direction. You aren’t going to find examples of Brees forcing him the ball or looking off open receivers to go back to Thomas. Still, it’s fair to wonder if Brees' distribution would be this lopsided if the other receivers on the roster were getting open.
Dez Bryant is returning to the NFL -- with the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints are about to find out the answer to that question after agreeing to a one-year deal with Dez Bryant on Wednesday morning. The former Cowboys All-Pro wide receiver isn’t here to be the top option in the offense. That distinction is firmly in the hands of Thomas. Bryant is here to show that he can still play at a high level after Dallas released him in April.
It's an intriguing idea if you have the right idea in mind. The Saints don’t have any expectations of Bryant turning back the clock five years. What they need is a player who can catch some passes and give them a consistent presence alongside Thomas.
The Saints’ No. 2 receiver, Tre’Quan Smith, has 12 catches. Cam Meredith has nine. Thomas has 70. It’s easy to see how that could become an issue if a team figures out how to limit Thomas’ production one day.
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Bryant's film from last season indicates he should be able to fill that role in some shape or form — if he can pick up the offense and is still the same player he was the last time we saw him play.
There has been a lot of talk over the last year about Bryant being washed up, but those people are likely comparing Bryant to what he was at the height of his game. If you look at the things Bryant can still do, and compare them against what New Orleans is getting out of the position, and how he could fit within the offense, the view is different.
One of the biggest knocks on Bryant was that he dropped too many passes last year, when he finished with 838 yards on 69 catches with six touchdowns. He was targeted 132 times, and depending on which stat service you like to use, he dropped 11 or 12 passes.
The drops were out of character for Bryant and are probably indicative of some decline. Some of the drops looked they were a result of focus. Others happened because Bryant was unable to outleap other players the way he once did. And some drops were the result of poorly placed passes.
Playing with Brees should help Bryant. Ted Ginn Jr. is a recent example of how quickly a player's reputation can change. Before joining the Saints in 2017, he dropped seven passes with the Carolina Panthers. He had two drops last season.
Another thing: Bryant won’t be the primary focus of the defense, and he will operate out in a scheme that uses complementary routes to help players get open instead of the isolation routes the Cowboys often prefer. Both of those things should help him create more separation and better situations in which to catch passes.
If Bryant, who will see action on the outside, is also capable of playing out of the slot — which he did on about 30 targets last season — it's easy to envision him creating some mismatches if he continues to adjust his game toward this style of play. He knows how to use his larger frame to make physical plays and box out defenders. Some of those traits showed up repeatedly in his 2017 film.
One of the examples came during a Week 7 game against the San Francisco 49ers, when, at the goal line, Bryant lined up across from cornerback Rashard Robinson. The wide receiver slipped between the cornerback and safety Adrian Colbert to get to the back of the end zone, where he leaped and got both feet down before falling out of bounds.
Another one came against the Cardinals when he ran a crossing route, sat in a zone to make the catch, and then turned upfield and broke a tackle. On the play, six Cardinals players wrapped up Bryant — but he managed to pull them several yards before falling into the end zone.
In fact, some of Bryant’s best moments came in the red zone. He also had an impressive leaping catch on a fade route over a Washington cornerback, and diving 10-yard touchdown against the Green Bay Packers.
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That isn’t to say Bryant can’t play on the outside. While he can still get down the field, he also isn’t running past cornerbacks the way he did at the start of his career. But the wide receiver still can make contested catches. He showed this by making one grab for 40 yards against Oakland, a 26-yard back-shoulder catch against the Chargers with Trevor Williams in coverage, and another back-shoulder grab against San Francisco’s Ahkello Witherspoon for a gain of 27.
Brees should be able to take advantage of those skills by throwing Bryant open and squeezing passes into tight windows.
Bryant has not played in nearly a year, so he’s going to have to prove he can still do all the things he did last season. He’ll also need to show that he can pick up a complex offense in a short period and blend into the fabric of an attack in which he won’t be the No. 1 receiver for the first time in his career.
None of that will be easy.
If we've learned anything about the New Orleans Saints in the past few weeks, it's this: They are treating this season like it's fourth-and-in…
There are a lot of things to like about Bryant’s game — especially if he can adapt it to this system. He still has good football left to play, and this should be a mutually beneficial pairing for player and team. If not, the commitment on both sides is small enough to where it shouldn’t hurt anyone if it doesn’t go as hoped.
But this was a chance the Saints had to take.