There was nothing discreet about New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas’ return to the practice field.
At one point during Tuesday’s organized team activities, all three of the Saints’ quarterbacks worked off to the side solely with Thomas as their target. Quarterbacks coach Ronald Curry and offensive assistant DJ Williams were with them, too.
It looked like special treatment for a special player.
“I’m gonna be ready for training camp,” Thomas said. “First Day One, out there with the team, ready to go, full speed. Just like the old days and what everyone’s used to.”
Thomas hasn’t practiced with the Saints since Week 3 of the 2022 season. He injured his foot in the fourth quarter of New Orleans’ road loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 25 and was ultimately placed on injured reserve Nov. 3 when toe surgery was deemed necessary.
Tuesday was the first official Thomas sighting of 2023, since the workout was open to media, but quarterback Derek Carr clarified he threw to Thomas on Monday.
New Orleans has two more voluntary OTA sessions Wednesday and Thursday before mandatory minicamp begins next Tuesday. Training camp dates have yet to be announced.
Saints coach Dennis Allen couldn’t definitively say how much Thomas will participate in minicamp, if at all. Thomas didn’t partake in any group drills Tuesday, only what appeared to be individual work.
“I wish I had the crystal ball to say exactly what he'll be ready to do, but I think all our energy is focused on getting him ready to go in training camp,” Allen said. “We're excited about it. Mike is an important piece of our offense. When he's playing at the level that he's capable of playing at, we're a much better offense.”
Thomas hasn’t been a consistence presence for the Saints since 2019 when he broke the NFL single-season receptions mark with 149 catches for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns.
In the last three years, Thomas appeared in only 10 games total. He injured his ankle in the 2020 season opener and played in just another six games later on. Then, in 2021, he missed the entire season after recovery complications from that same ankle injury ultimately required surgery. The opening three games followed in 2022.
“I've said on multiple occasions that we missed his ability to make the contested catch — those third-and-short, third-and-mediums, down there in the red area,” Allen said. “That's a guy that keeps drives alive. That’s a guy that scores touchdowns. Having him healthy I think is a big part of hopefully our success.”
Early this offseason, it seemed Thomas and the Saints were heading toward a split. The two parties agreed to a restructured contract in January that would have allowed the Saints to release him and save about $14 million in cap space.
In May, though, Thomas and the Saints agreed to another restructured contract that diminished his 2023 salary-cap hit and ensured he’d be in New Orleans this season.
Thomas called all that talk “fluff.”
“I knew I was always going to be playing here,” he said. “I knew I was going to be the receiver. I knew our priorities for the offseason was getting a quarterback and putting pieces around us. I was always involved.”
So much so that Carr admits Thomas remaining in New Orleans heavily factored into his decision to come here.
News about Carr came out March 6. Thomas was March 14. That’s a week separating the signatures.
Thomas’ injury history was never a concern.
“From the outside looking in, he's such a hard worker that's probably why,” Carr said. “Sometimes injuries happen when you play that hard, work that hard.
“You don't ever ask a guy like that to tone down. You keep going, as long as you can.”
Thomas is 30 years old and entering his eighth year in the league. He’s a two-time All-Pro first-teamer and three-time Pro Bowl member.
Before he got injured last season, Thomas caught three touchdown passes in the first two games. Those three receiving touchdowns held through all 17 games as the Saints’ third-best mark.
“I enjoy football,” Thomas said. “This is where I spend my offseason, training to become a better football player. All my lifestyle from nutrition to off-the-field stuff to on-the-field stuff, it’s about football and becoming a better player. Coming in and showing up to do football activities has never been a hard thing for me.”