After all, there was a time not too long ago when skill-position players felt somewhat expendable in New Orleans.
The Saints traded tight end Jimmy Graham in 2015, just one year after he signed a contract extension worth $10 million per year. They dealt receiver Brandin Cooks in 2017, before his rookie contract was up.
In both cases, the Saints felt their offense could keep running smoothly with coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees behind the wheel — and that their resources would be better spent elsewhere.
But times have changed.
The Saints made Thomas the richest receiver in NFL history on Wednesday because they had to. They ended a painless six-day training camp holdout by agreeing to a five-year extension worth $100 million with $61 million guaranteed.
So what’s so different about “Can’t Guard Mike”?
Well, you name it.
Not only is Thomas a special player who obliterated the NFL record with 321 catches in his first three seasons, but New Orleans’ cupboard would be frighteningly bare without him.
Last year, Thomas set franchise records with 125 catches and 1,405 receiving yards while earning first-team All-Pro honors. No other Saints receiver or tight end had more than 35 catches.
And the physical, 6-foot-3, 212-pounder is especially valuable for Brees, 40, at this stage of his career, since Thomas works so well in traffic on shorter and intermediate routes. Despite regularly being double-teamed, he caught a stunning 84.5 percent of his targets last season — the most of any NFL receiver since at least 2001, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The Saints addressed their lack of reliable pass-catchers this offseason by signing veteran tight end Jared Cook in free agency. Getting veteran receiver Ted Ginn Jr. back healthy for a full season should help, too.
But there is no way around the fact that Thomas is absolutely vital to a team that is built to win a Super Bowl right now.
This is one of those deals where the Saints really couldn’t afford not to pay him.
Both sides deserve credit for getting this deal done quickly before Thomas’ holdout became any sort of concern. This deal made too much sense for both sides to waste time posturing — and those nice, round numbers of $100 million and $20 million per year seemed almost inevitable.
It’s hard to call this a “win-win” for both sides, since the Saints certainly didn’t get a discount on the former second-round steal out of Ohio State.
And it’s a hard price tag for the Saints to absorb, since they also just signed All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan to a lucrative contract extension this summer and have more expensive deals on the horizon (Brees, running back Alvin Kamara, cornerback Marshon Lattimore and offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, among others in the next couple years).
But if any receiver is worth $20 million to his team, it’s Thomas.
He consistently delivered in big moments last season, catching 21 of 22 passes (95.5%) in one-score games in the fourth quarter or overtime. That was the highest such catch rate for any player with at least 10 targets last season.
And his career postseason numbers are even gaudier than his regular-season numbers: 31 catches for 423 yards and three TDs in four games.
The Saints appreciate Thomas’ work ethic as much as his production. Brees compared him to Darren Sproles as one of those rare players who treats every practice rep like it’s the Super Bowl. Payton told NFL.com last season that he felt like he got hit by a car when he made the mistake of standing in as the defensive back across from Thomas during a walk-through session.
“But those guys are fun to be around because once they flip the switch, man, it’s time to roll,” Brees said.
And if you are in the camp that believes no receiver is worth $20 million per year, well too bad, because that’s about to be the going rate.
Ideally, the Saints would have kept Thomas’ contract terms closer to the deal that Odell Beckham Jr. signed with the New York Giants last year, worth between $18 million and $19 million. But fellow elite receivers like Julio Jones, Amari Cooper, A.J. Green and Tyreek Hill are all expected to sign new contract extensions soon. And it’s possible the NFL’s salary cap will increase with a new collective bargaining agreement in 2021. So the bar will just keep getting higher.
The Saints were never going to get a bargain with this deal. But at least they have their must-have, go-to guy back in the fold well before the start of the regular season.
And now they have a chance to win big together in February.