Michael Thomas made a catch during Thursday’s practice with cornerback Ken Crawley draped over his back.
Not spotted: OL Rick Leonard and TE Garrett Griffin
It doesn’t sound like a particularly significant moment, given that Thomas established himself as one of the NFL's best wide receivers by being strong and explosive. Many of his catches come with players like Crawley hanging all over him.
But something about Thomas’ game looks different this offseason. Subtle changes are there. Details, as he calls them, like adding more muscle while maintaining the same weight through proper diet. Slight mental improvements. A touch more explosiveness.
Thomas' offseason has been similar to the fine-tuning a mechanic might perform after building a car. The thing is, if you make enough small improvements, added together, it can make a big difference. That’s what Thomas is hoping for as he and the New Orleans Saints head toward a new season.
“It’s only my (third) year, and everyone wants to see what I do next,” Thomas said. “That’s what makes it fun. That’s what I live for, to be able to take that next step. Once the numbers line up at the end of the day, I feel like I’m going to be there with the best of them. That’s the only thing I can control.”
Thomas should already be considered part of that group. He finished sixth in yards receiving last season (1,245), made the Pro Bowl and showed a national audience what he’s capable of, beating Xavier Rhodes for three catches, 46 yards, and a touchdown during last year’s playoff loss at Minnesota.
Those, too, are the moments Thomas says he lives for — going up against the best the league has to offer. “That’s what you find out who you are,” he explains. Chances are, the wide receiver likes what he found out last season. He performed favorably when matched up against the league's elite. Few cornerbacks, outside of Detroit's Darius Slay, able to keep him off the board.
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Thomas wants more of those moments, and he wants to be even better when the season begins. It’s difficult for a player who is already nearing the top of the league at his position to find ways to get better, but he’s searching for improvement and he thinks further enhancing his knowledge can lead to even better results.
There were times he saw exotic coverages and double-teams that were hard to beat. Studying those things and trying to see them through Drew Brees’ eyes can only help Thomas — especially because teams are likely to pay even more attention to him moving forward.
“Even when you have a double, you've still got to be able to beat that,” Thomas said. “You've got to know what Drew’s thinking, where he’s going to place the ball ... he can’t just place it on you because there’s two guys on you. Just knowing the little nuances of all that.”
One other thing is helping Thomas elevate his game: the presence of cornerback Marshon Lattimore. The two men routinely square off during practice, meaning that Thomas gets to work on his craft every day against one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.
He relishes the opportunity, because he knows every rep will only make him better.
That’s what Thomas wants. He’s careful never to allow himself to become cocky or arrogant. He chooses his words when speaking about his goals, or when asked how he stacks up against the NFL's best players. But you can see how motivated he is when you listen to him speak or look at his Twitter feed.
A.J. Klein didn't get a chance to finish off his first season with the New Orleans Saints.
Thomas doesn’t publish his thoughts on social media. He publishes his motivation.
I done use the same attitude that done got us here.
I started realizing some places I could take it. #Year3
This wasn’t built off of what they think of us …
Even his latest endorsement opportunity with Jordan Brand can be viewed as a source of motivation. Thomas was honored by the opportunity to represent the brand because he looks at Michael Jordan as the ultimate competitor. That’s how he wants to be viewed.
He’s working toward it, seeking every advantage he can exploit. And now that he’s established as one of the league's best receivers, the rest of his story will be told through the details.
Only he can decide where that takes him in Year 3.