When the New Orleans Saints signed wide receiver Michael Thomas to a five-year $100 million extension which featured $61 million in guarantees this week, it came off as a no brainer on both sides. The move was received well by fans and media alike. Thomas somehow slid into the second round to be picked up by a team with a Hall of Fame quarterback, saw instant success, and watched that success grow year-by-year.
Does that sound familiar?
Yes, a former second-round pick in Pittsburgh has to be looking at the numbers that Thomas got before the training camp of his fourth NFL season and knows that if he puts up similar numbers on the field in year three, the extension of JuJu Smith-Schuster could get just as pricey as the Saints’ deal with Thomas.
So what exactly does the Thomas extension mean for Smith-Schuster and the potential of his next deal?
Statistically speaking, Smith-Schuster might need to get a deal that will top Thomas’.
Through two NFL seasons, Smith-Schuster has 30 fewer receptions. However, it comes on 1.7 more yards per reception and 39 fewer total yards. Coming in with similar touchdown numbers, the two are about on par with each other as Thomas consistently catches more passes, but Smith-Schuster is more efficient with his catches.
However, Thomas proved in his third NFL season that he needed to be extended before his fourth. Smith-Schuster has a lot on the line this season and may start to get more of the target demand with Antonio Brown out of the picture. However, to keep up with Thomas through three seasons, Smith-Schuster would need 152 receptions. That seems unlikely considering a career-high for Brown was 136. However, he would need 1,444 yards and nine touchdowns to stay on pace with Thomas. Last season Smith-Schuster had 1,426 and seven touchdowns, so the slight uptick is within reach. Below is a look at their per-game numbers over three years.
It is also worth mentioning that Smith-Schuster will turn 23 this season while Thomas entered the NFL at age 23. Thomas is 26 years old now. Given the efficiency and age, a strong year three will have negotiations start at Thomas and work up from there.
2019 CONTRACT AMBITIONS
Thomas is the perfect comparison to look at not only in career arch but also application. In Thomas’ first season, it was questioned whether the coverage of Brandin Cooks opened up stats for him. Over the past two seasons, Thomas has carried a group that saw Ted Ginn as the next competent receiver in 2017, and Tre’Quan Smith as the number two last season.
The Saints have done an excellent job at getting Thomas looks in the slot, despite questionable outside matchups. It creates a pitch and catch scenario between Thomas and Drew Brees as Thomas works smaller slot cornerbacks. Smith-Schuster does his best work in the slot as well, featuring his size and run breaking capabilities. Smith-Schuster ran 59% of routes from the slot last season.
However, without a top outside option such as Brown, that number was expected to reduce. Still, the Saints were able to get Thomas in the slot 25% of the time, and he was able to lead the NFL in yards per route run in the slot. The Steelers will certainly want to study how the Saints kept an alpha receiver open without stud options behind him. If the Steelers can get Smith-Schuster into the slot enough to get favorable looks, and he can take a step forward on the outside, he will assuredly get a contract bigger than Thomas.
However, if the stress of losing Brown becomes too much for Smith-Schuster, and we learn that he may be reliant on slot targets, he may not be looking at the same type of money.
It is easier to win in the slot, which is why Thomas and Smith-Schuster dominate that area. However, Thomas also dominates all areas of the field and carried an offense.
Adam Thielen is a high-end athlete but has relied on seeing the majority of his snaps in the slot, running over 52% of his routes from there last season. Thielen is regarded as a great player but signed a four-year, $64 million deal in April.
Thielen does not have the pedigree and is 28 years old, but with $35 million in guarantees, there is an apparent drop-off. Jarvis Landry was 25 years old when he signed a five-year, $75 million deal with $34 million guaranteed. He played 61% of his snaps in the slot with Miami in 2017 and 65% in 2018 with Cleveland. There is a drop off for slot receivers.
We have seen Thomas soar over these deals. A standard season for Smith-Schuster has Thomas as his baseline. If the nay-sayers calling him a product of Brown are correct, the $16 million average annual salaries may be where the negotiations kick-off instead.
GETTING SOME HELP
The good news for Smith-Schuster is that no matter what he does in 2019, the market for his position is as healthy as it ever has been, and will only grow. To start, you see a new highest-paid player at his position every year and sometime, every month. The “highest-paid player at his position” is just a formality to kick off negotiations for the next deal. Kirk Cousins signed a deal to be the highest-paid quarterback in free agency before 2018. Since then, six quarterbacks have beaten his contract. Brown was the highest-paid receiver earlier this spring. Then Odell Beckham was. Now it is Thomas. The NFL continues to make money, and the salary cap continues to rise. This makes every new contract the biggest of all-time.
This is why the Thomas contract is more than likely a floor for Smith-Schuster. Between now and 2020 negotiations, Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Tyreek Hill, and Amari Cooper are due new deals. There is a chance that each of these players set a new bar for a player such as Smith-Schuster to get signed. With that in mind, the Steelers will not want to hesitate to let even more players sign before they get to Smith-Schuster.
There is no doubt that 2019 will have a dramatic impact on what type of money that Smith-Schuster is set to receive. However, there is also is no doubt that the Thomas extension helped Smith-Schuster in the negotiation rooms. Smith-Schuster will be pointing out his age, career arch, and slot usage compared to Thomas which could all point to Smith-Schuster getting over $100 million with close to $70 million in guarantees.