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Michael Thomas: Slant King? Or The NFL's Best Route Runner?

Tell me if you have heard this statement: "Michael Thomas is only good because he only runs slants." Another popular one is, "MiChAeL tHoMaS iS onLY gOoD bEcAuSe oF dReW bReEs." Ah yes, the voice of the ignorant football fan is ringing through your ears right now. Michael Thomas has proven over the past few seasons that he is the best route runner in the NFL. Yet, his play isn't taken seriously across "fans" as they believe he can only run slants. I decided to take a look at every catch he made during the 2019 season and determine what route it is. Below is a detailed breakdown of Michael Thomas's receptions from 2019:

Michael Thomas 2019 Stat Line | 149 receptions, 1,725 yards, 9 TDs

Source: YouTube "Michael Thomas Highlights: Every Catch 2019"

In the above table, these routes are based on receptions. The routes where he was targeted, but did not catch the pass, were omitted. In addition, the second and third column state where Thomas was lined up before the ball was snapped.

In percentages, Michael Thomas ran slants 21% of the time, outs 19% of the time, crossers 13% of the time, and hitches and digs 12% of the time each. In addition, 4 of his TDs were on short routes, another 4 TDs were on mid routes, and 1 TD was on a deep route. It is pretty obvious that MT does not ONLY run slants, but most of the route tree. The majority of his routes, however, are within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. I broke down the depth of each route ran below and how many times he ran a route at each distance:

Short: 0-5 yards

Mid: 5-15 yards

Deep: 15+ yards

In total, Michael Thomas ran 81 short routes, 49 mid routes, and 19 deep routes. In percentages, MT ran short routes 54% of the time, mid routes 33% of the time, and deep routes 13% of the time. It is also worth nothing that 5 of MT's TDs were from the outside, while 4 of his TDs were from the slot.

Photo: GettyImages

It is clear to see that MT is the best short route runner in the league; and arguably, the best route runner period. He gets a lot of flak for this, even though he dominates amongst other routes as well. A common phrase in football is "run it until they stop it". This is especially true with Michael Thomas and short routes. Even so, he can still run routes at the mid range and burn DBs on outside release fades.


Below is a list of every single route he caught a pass on and where he was lined up pre-snap:

Week 1 vs. Texans

  1. Mid Crosser (Slot)

  2. Short Out (Outside)

  3. Short Crosser (Outside)

  4. Deep Out (Slot)

  5. Deep Comeback (Outside)

  6. Mid Hitch (Outside)

  7. Short Out (Outside)

  8. Mid Hitch (Outside)

  9. Short Hitch (Outside)

  10. Mid Out (Slot)

Week 2 vs. Rams (Teddy Bridgewater takes over after Route 2)

  1. Mid Dig (Outside)

  2. Short Hitch (Slot)

  3. Mid Out (Outside)

  4. Short Slant (Slot)

  5. Short Hitch (Slot)

  6. Mid Hitch (Slot/Stack)

  7. Short Dig (Slot)

  8. Short Spot (Slot)

  9. Short Crosser (Slot)

  10. Short Crosser (Slot)

Week 3 vs. Seahawks

  1. Short Slant (Slot)

  2. Mid Hitch (Slot)

  3. Short Hitch (Outside)

  4. Short Screen TD (Outside)

  5. Short Crosser (Outside)

Week 4 vs. Cowboys

  1. Deep Fade (Slot)

  2. Mid Slant (Outside)

  3. Short Spot (Outside)

  4. Mid Fade (Outside)

  5. Mid Slant (Slot)

  6. Short Dig (Outside)

  7. Mid Dig (Outside)

  8. Short Spot (Outside)

  9. Short Crosser (Slot)

Week 5 vs. Buccaneers

  1. Short Out (Slot)

  2. Deep Post (Outside/Tight)

  3. Mid Out (Slot)

  4. Deep Crosser (Outside/Tight)

  5. Mid Out TD (Outside)

  6. Short Slant (Outside)

  7. Deep Fade (Outside)

  8. Deep Out (Outside/Tight)

  9. Short Hitch (Outside)

  10. Short Slant TD (Slot)

  11. Short Screen (Outside/Stack)

Week 6 vs. Jaguars

  1. Short Spot (Slot)

  2. Short Crosser (Slot)

  3. Mid Crosser (Outside/Tight)

  4. Mid Out (Slot)

  5. Short Hitch (Outside/Tight)

  6. Short Out (Slot)

  7. Short Slant (Outside/Stack)

  8. Short Dig (Slot)

Week 7 vs. Bears

  1. Mid Out (Outside/Stack)

  2. Short Hitch (Outside)

  3. Short Out (Slot)

  4. Deep Spot (Slot)

  5. Deep Spot (Outside)

  6. Deep Dig (Outside)

  7. Short Slant (Outside)

  8. Short Out (Slot)

  9. Deep Crosser (Outside)

Week 8 vs. Cardinals (Drew Brees Returns)

  1. Short Out (Slot)

  2. Short Crosser (Outside)

  3. Mid Slant (Outside)

  4. Short Slant (Slot)

  5. Short Screen (Outside/Stack)

  6. Short Slant (Outside)

  7. Short Slant (Outside)

  8. Short Screen (Outside/Stack)

  9. Short Hitch (Outside)

  10. Short Screen (Outside/Motion)

  11. Short Slant TD (Outside)

Week 9 (Bye Week)

Week 10 vs. Falcons

  1. Mid Fade (Outside)

  2. Deep Fade (Outside)

  3. Mid Out (Outside)

  4. Mid Dig (Outside)

  5. Short Slant (Outside)

  6. Short Slant (Outside)

  7. Short Crosser (Outside/Tight)

  8. Short Slant (Outside)

  9. Mid Slant (Outside)

  10. Short Screen (Slot/Motion)

  11. Short Slant (Outside)

  12. Mid Dig (Outside)

  13. Mid Dig (Slot)

Week 11 vs. Buccaneers

  1. Mid Fade (Outside)

  2. Mid Fade TD (Slot)

  3. Short Hitch (Slot)

  4. Short Crosser (Outside/Tight)

  5. Short Out (Outside/Tight)

  6. Mid Crosser (Outside/Tight)

  7. Short Out (Slot)

  8. Short Slant (Slot)

Week 12 vs. Panthers

  1. Short Dig (Outside)

  2. Mid Dig (Outside)

  3. Short Out (Outside/Stack)

  4. Short Screen (Slot)

  5. Short Dig (Outside)

  6. Deep Out (Outside/Motion)

  7. Mid Slant TD (Outside)

  8. Mid Slant (Outside)

  9. Mid Spot (Outside)

  10. Deep Fade (Outside)

Week 13 vs. Falcons

  1. Short Out (Outside)

  2. Mid Dig (Outside/Tight)

  3. Short Slant (Outside)

  4. Short Slant (Outside)

  5. Short Hitch (Outside/Tight)

  6. Short Slant (Slot)

Week 14 vs. 49ers

  1. Short Hitch (Outside/Tight)

  2. Mid Slant (Outside)

  3. Short Out (Outside/Tight)

  4. Mid Hitch (Slot)

  5. Short Slant (Outside)

  6. Short Screen (Outside)

  7. Short Dig (Outside)

  8. Deep Crosser (Slot)

  9. Mid Corner TD (Outside/Tight)

  10. Mid Dig (Outside/Tight)

  11. Short Slant (Slot)

Week 15 vs. Colts

  1. Mid Hitch (Outside)

  2. Mid Crosser (Outside)

  3. Deep Crosser (Slot)

  4. Short Out (Slot)

  5. Deep Seam TD (Slot)

  6. Deep Crosser (Outside/Tight)

  7. Mid Seam (Slot)

  8. Mid Out (Slot)

  9. Short Slant (Outside)

  10. Mid Slant (Outside)

  11. Mid Dig (Slot)

  12. Short Screen (Slot)

Week 16 vs. Titans

  1. Short Out (Slot)

  2. Mid Hitch (Outside)

  3. Mid Post (Slot)

  4. Mid Out (Outside)

  5. Mid Out (Slot)

  6. Deep Fade (Outside)

  7. Short Slant (Slot)

  8. Short Out (Slot)

  9. Short Spot (Slot/Stack)

  10. Mid Dig (Outside)

  11. Short Out TD (Slot)

  12. Short Crosser (Outside/Tight)

Week 17 vs. Panthers

  1. Mid Slant (Slot)

  2. Mid Spot (Outside/Tight)

  3. Short Dig (Outside)

  4. Short Crosser (Outside/Tight)


A few things to consider:

Digs- They are more commonly known as an "In" or "Box" routes.

Crossers- These are either mid to deep routes, where he gradually gets deeper and runs from one side of the field to the other, or he runs a short drag route underneath second level linebackers.

Spots- These are a combination of a slant and a hitch, where MT takes a few steps upfield, cuts inside, and stops in the middle of the field.

Fades- Most commonly, fades are referred to when in the red zone. In MT's case, these are outside release "go" routes where he works towards the sideline and will work back to the ball if need be.

Seams- These routes are similar to fades, but with an inside release.

Tight- This alignment means MT is close to the offensive line, or in a bunch set when ball is snapped.

Stack- This alignment means MT has one other receiver directly right behind him, in front of him, or offset either in front or behind him.

Photo: New Orleans Saints


Final Notes:

Michael Thomas, when healthy, is the best receiver in the NFL. He dominated all season long; even without Drew Brees for five full games. This year has been tough for him in regards to his injury and practice issues, but I expect him to finish the 2020 season strong and get back to record breaking form in 2021.

Another obstacle he may have to overcome is the possibility of Drew Brees retiring. It is unclear who the Saints field general will be after this season. There have been talks about Sean Payton making Taysom Hill the franchise QB after Brees leaves. There is also speculation, depending on how the next few games go, that the Saints may keep Jameis Winston. Only time will tell, but I believe MT can make any QB better with the amount of separation he gets on each route.

The next big goal for MT to achieve is a Super Bowl. Since joining the Saints, they have endured some of the most heartbreaking losses in playoff history. In 2017, it was a miracle last second throw to Stefon Diggs. In 2018, it was a blown pass interference call that sent the game to OT. In 2019, it was another blown pass interference call in OT. This year, with how crazy the NFL season has been, I wouldn't be shocked if something else happened to the Saints this postseason (maybe another Hail Mary to D-Hop?)

All in all, Michael Thomas can run any route you ask him to and make DBs pay for it. He is a matchup and scheme nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators and can change a game in an instant. MT has the tools to be one of the greatest receivers of all time, and he is off to a great start in achieving that title.


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