Jackson, the front-runner for the MVP award, is the most valuable passer of 2019, per ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating, and has 25 passing touchdowns, one fewer than league leader Russell Wilson of Seattle. Jackson has topped 100 rushing yards four times in 2019, an NFL record for quarterbacks, and needs just 63 rushing yards to break Michael Vick’s single-season record for quarterbacks.
McCaffrey, the league leader in touches (310), yards from scrimmage (1,811) and total touchdowns (16), is on pace for 2,415 yards from scrimmage and 21 touchdowns, which would make him the 11th back to eclipse the 2,000-yard and 20-touchdown marks in a season.
But don’t discount the candidacy of Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, who is putting together a historic season. Despite a five-week stretch without starting quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints are on pace to finish as the NFC’s top seed. If New Orleans wins its last four games, starting with Sunday’s matchup against the San Francisco 49ers, the road to Super Bowl LIV will run through the Superdome in the NFC.
And Thomas has been in the middle of it. A 2016 second-round draft pick out of Ohio State, the 26-year-old last month became the fastest to top 100 catches (11 games) in NFL history. His league-leading 110 catches are the most by an NFL player through 12 games, putting him on pace to break Marvin Harrison’s single-season record of 143, set in 2002. (Thomas, absurdly, has 24 more catches than DeAndre Hopkins, who ranks second.) Thomas’s 1,290 receiving yards already rank as the sixth-best single-season total in franchise history. In November, when he was named NFC offensive player of the month, Thomas had 37 catches for 415 yards and two touchdowns.
There has been plenty more history. Thomas is the fastest NFL player to record 400 catches. He has the record for catches in the first four seasons of a career (431 and counting, already 31 more than anyone else). Thomas is also the fourth wideout in NFL history to top 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first four seasons. And if you ask his coach for his best features, you won’t be left wanting for answers.
“His physicality at the release or at the top of routes, depending on how you choose to play him,” Saints Coach Sean Payton told NBC Sports. “If you’re going to press him, boy, he is extremely physical at the line of scrimmage. And if you’re going to play off, he’s going to be explosive at the top end of routes. I think he has strong hands in traffic. Those would be just a few things, and his run-after-the-catch ability is exceptional.”
Since 1992, the first year for which data is available, only Thomas has bettered his own catch rate this season (83 percent) among receivers seeing a minimum of 100 targets. Thomas also leads the league with 2.8 yards per route run, far above the league average of 1.5, per Pro Football Focus. Of wide receivers who have run at least 450 routes this season, no one else is close. That means not only does he make the catch, he makes a play with the ball, too.
While it is difficult to compare the impact of players at different positions on team success, the expected points added metric can help find the signal through the noise. Expected points added calculates the number of points scored above or below what we would expect given the down, distance and field position of each play. The Ravens have scored 28.2 more points than expected per 100 throws from Jackson, according to data from TruMedia. Baltimore has scored 17 more points than expected per 100 snaps when he rushes the ball.
By comparison, when McCaffrey rushes the ball for Carolina, the Panthers score almost eight fewer points than expected per 100 carries. That’s not surprising; rushing in the modern NFL is not an efficient way to score.
Passes to Thomas, on the other hand, are extremely lucrative. When New Orleans quarterbacks target him, the Saints are scoring almost 57 points more than expected per 100 throws. Think he has not been valuable to the Saints’ offense?
“Listen. He’s a special guy,” Brees told the Associated Press. “Tell Mike the route. He’ll assess the coverage. He’ll know how he needs to run it based upon who he’s running it against as well because he studies the guys.
“He’s going to look you dead in the eye and say, ‘I’m going to get open.’ And you believe him. You trust him,” Brees continued. “So you anticipate it. You throw it. And most of the time, he’s right.”
Read more NFL coverage: