Training Camp watch list: New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas

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Pierre Thomas (23) puts a bow on a touchdown-scoring football before giving it to a fan in the first quarter of the New Orleans Saints’ record-breaking 45-16 rout of the Atlanta Falcons on December 26, 2011.  Photo credit:  Getty Images.


Pierre Thomas has been a fixture of the New Orleans Saints offense for the better part of the last decade since he was signed immediately following the 2007 NFL Draft.  He started the tradition of undrafted free agent success in New Orleans by defeating Fourth Round Draft selection Antonio Pittman for a roster spot and has been the Saints’ de facto starting halfback ever since.

But now that he has recorded somewhere around 1,100 touches in his career and is approaching the age of 30 (which spells doom for many running backs, as it is commonly when their performances take a sharp downturn) he is finding himself as both the senior member of the Saints’ rushing attack and somewhat on the roster bubble entering training camp.  Thomas’ production as a runner has been on the decline the last three years as the chart below shows.  The formulas I used to find these results with numbers from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) are:

-YPC:  Yards Per Carry (total rushing yards divided by total rushing attempts).  This shows how the back performed on average regardless of factors like yardage situations or defensive packages.

-YAC/C:  Yards After Contact per Carry (total rushing yards after contact with a defender divided by total rushing attempts).  This demonstrates what the back was able to produce on their own, without blocking from teammates.

-MT %:  Missed Tackles Forced Percentage (total missed tackles forced on defenders divided by total rushing attempts).  This gives an idea of how elusive the player was.

-15+ %:  15+ Yard Gains Percentage (rushing attempts of 15 or more yards divided by total rushing attempts).  This category shows how often the back produced big plays on the ground.

 

YPC

YAC/C

MT %

15+ %

2011

5.33

3.07

20.17 %

5.04 %

2012

4.50

2.78

18.10 %

2.86 %

2013

3.73

2.20

14.29 %

2.04 %

As is inevitable, time and injuries have taken their toll on Thomas – his abilities as a rusher have declined by a rate of almost one yard per carry, half of a yard after contact, and significantly faster in other categories.  While still a versatile and impactful offensive weapon, Thomas’ days as the Saints’ primary rusher seem to be numbered.  Fortunately, the emergence of Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson as aggressive interior runners means that Thomas can continue to use his best skills in another capacity as the Saints’ main receiving back.

Thomas has always been one of the Saints’ most productive receivers (of any position) and the NFL’s best “screen back”, logging a career-high 129.24% of his 2013 receiving yards after the catch.  He has consistently had missed tackle rates of 28.21% or higher (approximately forcing a defender to whiff on every seventh reception) as a receiver and has never gotten less than 104.52% of his receiving yards after the catch.  Thomas only has seven drops recorded in his career on 328 targets and a career completion percentage of 91.92%, making him one of the most reliable receivers regardless of position over that time.

But there’s one more skill where the Saints demand efficiency from their backs – pass protection.  Thomas was decent at this, though his numbers were erratic over the last three years:  he allowed pressure on 9.26% of his blocks in 2011, 6.82% in 2012, and 12.86% in 2013, including two sacks.  He originally earned a roster spot based on his superior pass blocking; to keep it, Thomas has to become more effective and get back to that strength of protecting the Saints’ all-time great quarterback.

What does the future hold for Thomas?  He signed a two-year contract extension with the Saints this spring and with Mark Ingram looking to leave town after 2014 regardless of whether he underwhelms or breaks out, Thomas should be one of the longest-tenured Saints.  In the coming season he should make the team as the third back behind Ingram and Robinson, filling the departed Darren Sproles’ role of the passing back while becoming Brees’ trusted weapon on third down and in other critical game situations.  Thomas will still get his carries, but with the younger backs running so well they should decrease this year.

Did you like this article?  Drop me a line on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TBK_nola for updates and notes about all things Saints football, and you can check out all of my other work for Cover32 at http://cover32.com/saints/author/jsigler/.

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