2017 Player vs. Player - Jordy Nelson vs. Michael Thomas

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Fantasy football draft season is upon us and RotoBaller is here to help! In this series, two RotoBaller experts will discuss the merits of two players with similar value and average draft position (ADP). Remember that situations will change for all players over the course of the summer and it may impact where they are selected in drafts.

Our next article comes from staff writers Jason Katz and Taylor Maxston who compare two wide receivers with ADPs that fall around the mid-second to early third round.

Jason argues in favor of last season’s second-highest scoring wideout in Green Bay Packer Jordy Nelson, while Taylor advocates for a player who exploded onto the scene as a rookie (finishing as WR9 in standard scoring) in New Orleans Saints’ wide receiver Michael Thomas.

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Opening Statements: Who Do You Draft?

Jordy Nelson (WR, GB) Has Adapted His Game to Continue to Produce – Jason Katz

I really hate drafting old players. My general rule is no RBs over 30 and no WRs over 31. I made an exception last year for Brandon Marshall and I feel like I got what I deserved. Yet somehow, I’m willing to do it again for Jordy Nelson.

There is no chance I would draft 2014 Jordy Nelson at age 32. After tearing his ACL in 2015, I was justifiably skeptical that he would be able to successfully return at age 31 in 2016. His skillset is just not conducive to overcoming that type of injury at that age. That’s the most amazing part of Nelson. The Jordy Nelson we saw in 2016 was a completely different Jordy Nelson and the 2016 version is a guy who can produce at a high level deeper into his thirties.

Nelson scored 13 touchdowns in 2014. Five them were from 11 yards or closer. One was from 27 yards out. The other seven were from 40+ yards out. In 2016, he clearly lost a step. The thing is, Nelson knew that. He scored 14 touchdowns in 2016. His longest touchdown was 32 yards. 11 of them were 17 yards or shorter. Six of them were from inside five yards. His recognition that he could no longer beat defenders deep the way he used to and his ability to change his game, at age 31, to that of a possession type receiver, and to still be elite while doing it, is nothing short of remarkable. It is indicative of not just his incredible football talent, but also his immense football IQ. Even if the touchdowns dip a bit, there’s no reason he can’t be an elite WR1 with a 90-1200-10 type line. While projecting a decrease in catches, yards, and touchdowns, those numbers would still put Nelson as a mid WR1, which is exactly what he is being drafted to be.

 

Michael Thomas (WR, NO) Has the Ability and Opportunity – Taylor Maxston

It sounds crazy, trying to advocate for drafting an emerging wide-out after an amazing first NFL season over a firmly established fantasy stud with a strong résumé. Before you dismiss this debate as a one-sided argument, let’s talk about why Michael Thomas could outperform Jordy Nelson in the 2017/18 season.

For a rookie to step in and lead the New Orleans Saints in targets, completions, and touchdowns (a stat-line of 121-92-9) shows how trustworthy Michael Thomas became as the go-to-guy straight out of Ohio State. While not possessing the same athletic skillset as the top fantasy wide receivers, his heightened football IQ, physicality in getting separation on routes, and willingness to take contact over the middle allowed him to develop a strong rapport with quarterback Drew Brees early on last season. In the past, Brees has been the driver of Saints’ offenses with a reliable chain-mover producing strong fantasy numbers a-la Marques Colston. Thomas has shown that he wants to fill those shoes while proving to be a sure-handed, competitive wide-out that can be trusted with an even bigger workload.

What does the upcoming fantasy football season hold for Michael Thomas? Since 2006, the New Orleans Saints’ top wide receiver has had an incredibly consistent share of the teams’ targets, never falling below 16% at its lowest and reaching 23% at its peak. Thomas will undoubtedly be that player in 2017 after catching 76% of his targets and showing how productive he can be with an increased role in the offense down the stretch, catching 6 touchdowns over the final eight games last season. Furthermore, he has massive touchdown upside as a 6`3, physical target in the absence of threats outside of tight end Coby Fleener. Bottom line, Michael Thomas is in line for a WR1 role in the Saints’ offense next season with a hall of fame quarterback throwing him the ball and a lack of competition around him.

 

Rebuttals: What Are The Negatives For Each Player?

Michael Thomas (WR, NO) Had A Deceptive Level of Success Last Season – Jason Katz

I don’t dislike Michael Thomas. Not at all. Typically I’d prefer the newer, younger player over the older guy. I would love to want to draft Thomas this year. Unfortunately, he’s simply overpriced at his second round ADP.

A review of the film from 2016 shows an effective Thomas…when he’s operating against the opposing team’s second cornerback. The fantasy community is severely undervaluing how helpful Brandin Cooks’ presence was for Michael Thomas. Cooks is an elite talent that demanded the attention of the opponent’s top corner. Drew Brees is one of the best quarterbacks of all time. When defenses keyed in on Cooks, he threw to Thomas. However, when Thomas started torching secondary defenders, opposing coaches would have no choice but to change things up and sometimes put the top corner on Thomas. When that happened, Thomas struggled.

In 2016, the Saints had one of the easiest strengths of schedule for wide receivers. In 2017, they project for the seventh most difficult schedule. The increased difficulty of opponents combined with the lack of Brandin Cooks to command attention leads to concerns about how well Thomas will produce.

Thomas is both a real life and fantasy WR2 masquerading as a WR1. I find it hard to believe Thomas will be four rounds better than “Fast” Willie Snead, who I greatly prefer at his 7.02 standard ADP. Thomas is currently the seventh receiver off the board. That number should be more like 12-15, which is about where I’d expect Thomas to finish. Meanwhile, Jordy Nelson is the sixth receiver off the board, which is right where I expect him to be when the season ends. This is a rare case where Nelson is both the safer pick and the one with the higher ceiling. Take the guy with the proven track record in the second round.

 

Jordy Nelson (WR, GB) Doesn’t Have the Upside of a True WR1 – Taylor Maxston

Let me start by saying that I love Jordy Nelson. He’s been the centerpiece to many high-flying Green Bay Packer offenses, consistently providing quarterback Aaron Rodgers with a dangerous weapon that mad everyone around him better. While it’s true that the 2016 Nelson who produced copious amounts of fantasy points is not the same player we are used to seeing, the change in his playing style is indicative of a greater downward trend. Don’t get me wrong, he will still be a top 12 wide-out in 2017, but so many situational factors are going to make it difficult for him to live up to the production we saw over the last few seasons.

Jordy Nelson is hitting an age that is notoriously recognized as the point of decline for wide receivers, especially in fantasy football. Over the last 10 years, only two of 71 wide receivers from age 32 onward have finished in the top five of fantasy scoring, meaning he lacks the upside of a conventional WR1. There were also signs of decline last season that are obvious red flags, with Nelson’s 13.4 yards per reception taking a knock down to 12.8 from week 9 onward and a career low 8.3 yards per target to finish the 2016 season. With Nelson having just turned 32 in May, father time is a legitimate concern even for a player who has adapted his game to his limitations.

What’s more, this 2017 Packers offense has plenty of mouths to feed. Davante Adams has an entire off-season to continue to build trust with his quarterback, a healthy Randall Cobb will bounce back to form when he saw 256 targets in the 2014 and 2015 seasons, and tight end Martellus Bennett will compete for targets over the middle. Don’t expect a repeat performance of Aaron Rodgers throwing the ball 610 times last season either. Green Bay opted to try and fix their woeful secondary in the draft with second-round pick Kevin King and drafted three running backs in an attempt to re-establish some form of ground game.

I expect Jordy Nelson's ADP to creep up to the late first/early second round come August, a price that’s personally too rich for my blood. With more competition and fewer targets, Jordy Nelson’s regression will be experienced all across the board compared to a Michael Thomas who faces less competition for both targets and red-zone opportunity.

 

More 2017 Fantasy Football Analysis