Saints wide receiver 'Can't Guard Mike' keeps living up to name

The Saints' Michael Thomas has been outstanding in his first two seasons, averaging 98 receptions, 1,191 yards and 7 TDs. Grant Halverson/Getty Images

METAIRIE, La. -- Trivia question: Who holds the NFL record for most receptions over the first two years of his career?

All right, the headline of this story probably gave it away. But file that one away to stump your buddies who aren't the most die-hard New Orleans Saints or Ohio State Buckeyes fans.

Because even though receiver Michael Thomas has broken out in a big way over the past two seasons with a total of 196 catches for 2,382 yards and 14 touchdowns, he has still been overshadowed a bit by fellow Saints breakout stars such as Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore.

That should change soon enough as the physical 6-foot-3, 212-pounder known as "Can't Guard Mike" continues to cement his place among fellow elite receivers such as Julio Jones, Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr.

"I feel like that will come," said Thomas, who continued to be the most dominant player on the field during the Saints' organized team activities this spring before he missed minicamp for an unspecified reason. "When you look at the guys that are the top receivers in the league, they've all played multiple years. So it's about staying consistent. It's only my second year, so everyone wants to see what I'm gonna do next. And I feel like that's what makes it fun. That's what I live for, to be able to take that next step and then see what they say, and then take that next step.

"And then once the numbers line up at the end of the day, I feel like I'm gonna be right there with the best of them. And that's the only thing I can control."

Thomas has always shown a lot of respect and deference to his teammates -- and so far has never publicly demanded that the Saints "just give me the damn ball!" like his famous uncle and former NFL star Keyshawn Johnson.

But Thomas also doesn't try to hide his confidence and lofty aspirations.

After all, he made "Cantguardmike" his Twitter handle even before he became a standout at Ohio State -- and he has never shied away from backing that up.

"I was a big fan of Allen Iverson, and he was The Answer," Thomas said. "And playing receiver, you want to have that mindset where, like, no one can guard you. And you want to play like that and walk it like you talk it."

The Saints have been known for spreading the ball around during the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. But with all due respect to Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, Joe Horn and Brandin Cooks, it's quite possible Thomas is the best pass-catcher they've had in New Orleans.

Thomas' strengths include his ability to "box out" defenders with his size, his great hands and his great catch radius. He has caught 74.2 percent of his targets in his career, which ranks second in the NFL among wide receivers over the past two seasons (behind only Cordarrelle Patterson) according to ESPN Stats & Information.

But he can also make plays down the field and rack up yards after the catch. His 921 yards after the catch rank third in the NFL over the past two seasons among receivers (behind Golden Tate and Jarvis Landry and just ahead of Jones and Brown).

Brees, meanwhile, said that what stands out most about Thomas is "just his mindset and then his work ethic to get better, like each and every day."

"Every rep is the most important of the day, if not his life," Brees said. "Every rep is a game rep, every rep is like a Super Bowl rep. So, not many guys I've ever played with are that competitive. I mean, there's really no situation where it's just like, 'Ahh, I'm gonna take this one off' or, 'Not gonna take this one as serious.' No. I mean every rep is the same mindset. So you know what you're gonna get out of him every day.

"And those are the best teammates. So I love that about him. I think it's one of his greatest qualities. I think it's the greatest quality that a player can have."

That's awfully high praise from Brees. But Thomas has earned it since being drafted in the second round in 2016 -- never more so than during the 2017 playoffs.

Thomas had eight catches for 131 yards in the Saints' 31-26 win against the Carolina Panthers in the wild-card round. Then he caught seven passes for 85 yards and two touchdowns during the divisional-round loss in Minnesota.

Brees routinely targeted Thomas in the second half of that Minnesota game while the Saints rallied from a 17-0 deficit to take a 24-23 lead -- even though Thomas was mostly being guarded by first-team All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes.

Thomas said that "definitely" meant a lot to him, because he wants to be the type of player his team trusts in big moments and big matchups.

"I love competition. I love going against great talent. It's what keeps you honest, it's what makes you find out who you are," Thomas said. "We [lost to the Vikings] in the first game last year, and it was kind of like a game where we could respond, and you could show that you got better and not just say it ... you just go out there and compete. And I feel like that gave me an opportunity to do it, and I just wanted to be there to make plays."

Thomas gets to go up against one of the best every day in practice, too -- Lattimore -- the reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Their head-to-head matchups were the highlight of OTAs. Although Thomas got the better of Lattimore in the handful of practice sessions that were open to the media, Lattimore insisted Thomas was just "showing out for the cameras."

Thomas said he hasn't made any drastic changes to his game or his physique this offseason like he did last year, when he said he added about 10 pounds of muscle to beef up to 220.

But he said he has been more disciplined with his diet and putting on the right kind of weight. And he has been focused on all of the "little details" to keep taking his game up a notch -- like "knowing the playbook, being in the right place at the right time, knowing more exotic coverages and what the defense is planning to do and take away."

Thomas said his focus is, "Don't get complacent. Don't let anything get to my head, trust my coaches, trust what got me here."

If he keeps doing what he has been doing, that trivia question will become a lot easier in years to come.