The NFL is a passing league. You know this. I know this. Just about everyone in the league knows this.
Because it's a passing league, quarterbacks are the most important players on the field. And just about every quarterback has that one pass-catcher he trusts more than anybody else -- the guy he wants to go to in key spots, with the game on the line. With that in mind, we're going to use this space over the next several weeks to dig into some of the league's best passing-game combinations and what makes them tick.
We began by exploring the Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, which is defined by how each player has raised the other's game since they came together. Next, we delved into Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins, whose by the degree of difficulty. Then, we went deep on the union of Russell Wilson and Tyler Lockett, which is . After that, we detailed the collaboration between Lamar Jackson and Mark Andrews, which is defined by . And last week, we dug in on Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill, whose connection is defined by .
Drew Brees is a 13-time Pro Bowler, a four-time MVP runner-up, a two-time offensive player of the year, a first team All-Pro, and a Super Bowl MVP. He's now the NFL's all-time leader in completed passes, passing yards, and passing touchdowns, and he is on track to set the new NFL record for completion percentage for the third consecutive season. And he has never had a more dependable target than Michael Thomas.
This is only Thomas' fourth season in the league, but he is already setting NFL records. No receiver in NFL history has caught as many passes through their first four seasons as Thomas, and it's not particularly close. With two games left in Year 4, Thomas is 54 catches ahead of the next-closest player (Jarvis Landry).
Thomas debuted with a 92-catch, 1,137-yard, nine-touchdown season back in 2016, and all he has done is get better every year since. His catch and yardage totals have increased every season he has been in the league, and unless something strange happens over the next two weeks, he is going to shatter the all-time record for receptions in a single season. With two games to play, he is just 10 catches behind. For perspective's sake, you should know that Thomas is averaging 9.5 catches per game. In the nine contests started by Brees, he is averaging more than 10 per game.
This is going to be Thomas' second consecutive season leading the NFL in receptions (he already has eight more than his league-leading total from a year ago) and his first leading the league in receiving yards. Among players who have played in at least 10 games in a given season, Thomas' 110.9 yards per game average this year is the 10th-best mark of all time. If he matches it over the next two games, he'll finish with the seventh-most receiving yards in a single season, ever. And that's despite Brees missing five-plus games due to a thumb injury.
Even more than the volume, though, the most impressive thing about Thomas' production, both this season and in his previous three, is his efficiency. Before Thomas debuted in 2016, there had been just 32 seasons since 1992 (as far back as Pro-Football-Reference's target data goes) where a wide receiver was targeted at least 120 times and caught at least 69 percent of those targets. Thomas has reached both of those numbers in each of his four seasons.
In these last two years, though, Thomas has taken it to another level. Thomas' 2018 and 2019 seasons are the only seasons in the history of the league where a player has been targeted at least 120 times and caught at least 80 percent of those throws. You have to drop the threshold all the way down to 71 targets to find another wide receiver who hauled in at least 80 percent of throws in his direction. And even then, Austin Collie's 81.7 percent catch rate still falls short of the marks Thomas has posted in each of the past two seasons.
Thomas and Brees, more than any other duo in the league, specialize in taking what the defense gives them. If Thomas' corner plays more than a few yards off the line, he is done. Brees will throw him a hitch or a slant or a curl or a quick out and they will take seven or eight free yards and keep things moving. Every single time.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Thomas has 85 catches on throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage this season. That's the second-most any player has had since Thomas entered the league, behind only the 87 such catches Thomas had last year. The Saints play at 1 p.m. ET in Week 16, so Thomas might surpass last season's mark by around 1:05.
Thomas and Brees are able to consistently create these free yards because Brees is probably the most accurate thrower in the history of the league, and because Thomas is a master at beating his man on the release. (And at the top of the route, but the release is where he does most of his winning. It's already over by the time he hits his break a lot of the time.) The footwork Thomas uses off the line is out-of-control good, and there are so many routes where his defender just has no chance to stay with him, let alone interrupt the ball at the point of the catch.
Even on the occasions where a defender does stay with Thomas off the release and does stay with him off the break and does find himself potentially in position to make a play at the point of the catch, he almost always can't manage to do it anyway. That's because right now, Thomas is the best box-out guy in the NFL. He's 6-3 and 212 pounds, he has ridiculously wide shoulders, and he almost always snatches the ball out of the air with his hands rather than letting it get into his body. There's just not really much a defensive back can do with a guy that big, that strong, with hands that good.
Maybe the most interesting thing about Thomas outside of his production is the way the Saints prefer to use him. In a league where most teams line up a small, shifty wideout in the slot (think Cole Beasley or Jamison Crowder), the Saints will often line Thomas up on the inside, trusting that his size will win the day against nickel cornerbacks. More often than not, that's the right bet -- just as it was with Thomas' spiritual predecessor in New Orleans, the 6-4, 225-pound Marques Colston.
Without a doubt, though, what really defines the Brees-Thomas connection more than anything else, is the slant route. Watching Saints games can often feel repetitive, with these guys hooking up on what looks like exactly the same pass, over and over and over again. It's monotonous, and it's purposeful. They know you can't stop it, and they will keep throwing it until you adjust and make them do something else. (And then they'll do that, too.)
Brees and Teddy Bridgewater are a combined 30 of 34 for 286 yards, 17 first downs, and three touchdowns on slant routes to Thomas this season. Those 30 catches, 34 targets, 286 yards, 17 first downs, and three touchdowns are all the best mark any receiver has posted on slant routes in any of the past four seasons. The top-10 list from those four seasons includes Thomas four times, illustrating just how well this particular route has worked ever since he entered the league.
When Brees and Thomas want the slant, it's there for them. It's practically automatic. A free seven or eight yards the defense simply cannot stop them from taking no matter what they do -- and just about than half the time, a free first down. They're going to keep taking it and keep racking up completions and yards and first downs, on their way to a whole lot of points and a whole lot of wins. If they stack enough in a row, perhaps they can get Brees his second Super Bowl title.