Saints Receiver Michael Thomas’ Career Damage Now Extends Beyond His Injured Ankle Ligament

Michael Thomas picks up first downs better than just about anyone in the NFL. Now, the 28-year-old New Orleans Saints receiver must up his game when it comes to picking up the phone.

Thomas is in the doghouse with the Saints’ front office over his offseason handling of an ankle injury that resulted in him missing nine games last season. Now, fans are learning that there’s more behind the frustrating news about the injury and subsequent surgery that will delay his return to the lineup.

It’s the kind of stuff that even calls into question whether the Saints might cut ties with Thomas before he completes his five-year contract.

Michael Thomas gambled, and the New Orleans Saints lost

The New Orleans Saints gave Michael Thomas the go-ahead to pick rehabilitation over surgery on his injured ankle. However, the receiver kept the team in the dark for three months before the surprising revelation that he ended up needing the surgery anyway. | Chris Graythen/Getty Images
The New Orleans Saints gave Michael Thomas the go-ahead to pick rehabilitation over surgery on his injured ankle. However, the receiver kept the team in the dark for three months before the surprising revelation that he ended up needing the surgery anyway. | Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Thomas injured his left ankle in the Saints’ 2020 opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, missed the next six games, and proved ineffective upon returning. The Saints shut him down after Week 14, though Thomas returned for the playoffs, again limited in what he could contribute.

In that sense, the Saints making it to the postseason was unfortunate since Thomas could have begun recovery and rehabilitation a month sooner. After giving the injury time to heal, the team’s medical staff recommended surgery in March. However, NOLA.com reported on Saturday that Thomas sought a second opinion and decided to try to rehabilitate the injury instead.

That’s not an uncommon sequence of events, but this case was different. Thomas stopped communicating with the Saints from his California home. The team had given the receiver a set of benchmarks to meet; if the recovery didn’t stay on schedule, then the Saints would have pushed for surgery as early as possible. Instead, Thomas revealed last month that he went under the knife in June.

With a projected four-month recovery time, he faces missing the first quarter of the season. That’s not good for a team that will also be playing without their quarterback of the past 15 years, the now-retired Drew Brees.

Michael Thomas’ career damage now extends beyond his injury

Saints coach Sean Payton openly criticized Thomas as he met with reporters to open training camp late last month. “The surgery took place, and obviously we would’ve liked that to happen earlier than later,” Payton said. “And, quite honestly, it should’ve.”

The NOLA.com report described Payton’s relationship with Thomas as good. It helps that Thomas is on track with his rehab since the surgery. However, the receiver’s reliability remains in question. Payton, receivers coach Curtis Johnson, and Beau Lowery, who was the team’s trainer at the time, all tried to reach Thomas during the offseason attempt at rehab.

Their calls and messages went unanswered, making for two big strikes against Thomas in 10 months. Last October, while dealing with the initial injury, Thomas reportedly punched safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson during practice and was not forthcoming with an apology. Suspending an injured player for a game was useless, so Saints management fined him $58,823.53, the value of one game check.

In handling the situation in that fashion, the team did not jeopardize $27.95 million in remaining guaranteed money on Thomas’ contract, according to USA Today. Thomas might have won on appeal had the Saints gone the suspension route, but that was no sure thing.

He showed his gratitude by breaking off communication on the very important offseason development affecting his future as well as the team’s.

There’s uncertainty ahead for the receiver

The Saints are not giving up on Thomas. They invested $96,250,000 ($60.6 million guaranteed) in him with a five-year contract in 2019. Thomas rewarded their faith that season with 149 catches for 1,725 yards, both league highs. Ninety-one of the catches went for first downs and nine for touchdowns.

With Thomas unavailable for the start of the 2021 season, the Saints signed receiver Chris Hogan and moved running back Ty Montgomery to wideout, which necessitated signing veteran Devonta Freeman to bolster the backfield. Hogan and Montgomery combined won’t add up to a healthy Thomas, but at least they’ll be there.

Thomas will have some catching up to do once he returns. By season’s end, the Saints will have paid Thomas more than three-quarters of the guaranteed money spelled out in his contract. The Saints have converted $21.61 million in salary to bonus money over the past two years, which freed up crucial cap space but also put the money into the player’s pocket sooner.

By the end of next season, Thomas will have collected all his guaranteed money and entered the phase in which veterans typically want to renegotiate for future guarantees while the front office weighs the liability of dead cap space vs. the $15.8 million that Spotrac.com says they free up by letting him go.

It’s a non-issue for a productive star player. It’s a tougher call if Thomas causes any more unnecessary aggravation along the way. He can’t afford to let the Saints down again.

All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

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