28 September 2011

Pierre Thomas: Past and Present

After signing a contract extension in the offseason, Pierre Thomas has seemed like a secondary component in the Saints' offense after years of valued production. Thus far in 2011, Thomas remains an ancillary weapon while fellow teammates Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham, and Lance Moore have occupied the central playmaking roles.




Overall this season, Thomas has carried the ball 15 fewer times than rookie Mark Ingram and has been targeted 18 fewer times than Darren Sproles.


This past week against the Texans, Thomas logged a season-low 19 snaps among the 68 plays the Saints ran. While only playing 28% of the total offensive plays, Thomas still managed 28 yards rushing and 15 yards receiving on eight total opportunities (seven rush, one reception on one target).


Will this marginal role become a trend? Are Thomas' limited opportunities this season simply a function of in-game strategy? Or is the coaching staff managing Thomas' recovery from offseason ankle surgery in an attempt to keep him healthy all season?


Obviously, these are questions to which no one has an answer, aside from the Saints' coaches. But regardless, Thomas' understated role highlights the depth of offensive talent possessed by the Saints when considering the bigger picture in relation to Thomas' talent, contributions, and value to the Saints over the course of his career.


Since he's come into the NFL, Thomas has been undervalued and, perhaps, not properly rated among his peers. The origins of Thomas' role with the Saints started in 2007 when he came to training camp as an undrafted free agent from Illinois. He proceeded to win a roster spot by ousting the more highly-touted Antonio Pittman, the Saints' 2007 fourth round draft choice out of Ohio State.


When Thomas finally received an opportunity in the 2007 regular season, he pounced. During the season finale at Chicago, Thomas--with the RB duties solely to himself--rushed for 105 yards and caught 12 passes for 121 yards. In the process, Thomas became the first player to log both 100+ yards rushing and 100+ yards receiving in a single game vs. the Bears in the history of their franchise.  


Less than 12 months prior, Thomas was deemed unworthy of being one of the 200+ players drafted into the NFL. When he finally got his chance, he accomplished something that no player in NFL history had done. An auspicious audition indeed.


Over the course of the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Thomas maintained a complementary role in the Saints' backfield with Reggie Bush; continued to develop into an exceptional player; and made his case for the more valuable of the two backs. Even after missing much of the 2010 season due to a gruesome ankle injury, Thomas still compared favorably to his colleagues at the RB position.


A look at a few important statistical benchmarks for Thomas from 2008 to the current date are noted as follows. These tables below gauge NFL RBs from 2008-2011 with a minimum of 300 rushing attempts and a minimum of 60 receptions.


Games Rushing
Rk Player From To Tm G GS Att Yds Y/A TD Y/G
1 Jamaal Charles 2008 2011 KAN 49 18 499 3027 6.07 12 61.8
2 Felix Jones 2008 2011 DAL 39 9 371 1935 5.22 8 49.6
3 DeAngelo Williams 2008 2011 CAR 38 36 603 3054 5.06 26 80.4
4 Derrick Ward 2008 2011 TOT 47 4 357 1788 5.01 8 38.0
5 LeSean McCoy 2009 2011 PHI 34 18 419 2062 4.92 15 60.6
6 Arian Foster 2009 2011 HTX 23 14 391 1906 4.87 19 82.9
7 Chris Johnson 2008 2011 OTI 50 47 971 4696 4.84 34 93.9
8 Darren McFadden 2008 2011 RAI 41 26 501 2406 4.80 15 58.7
9 Pierre Thomas 2008 2011 NOR 38 15 380 1787 4.70 17 47.0
10 Ahmad Bradshaw 2008 2011 NYG 49 13 549 2557 4.66 17 52.2
11 Adrian Peterson 2008 2011 MIN 50 46 1018 4737 4.65 43 94.7
12 Ray Rice 2008 2011 RAV 48 34 708 3242 4.58 13 67.5
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/28/2011.


This first table shows that Thomas' 4.7 yards per carry is 9th overall since 2008. This stat is a praiseworthy reflection of Thomas' vision, instincts and ability to break tackles. It is also impressive company he's amongst in this group. More importantly, this number reflects Thomas' high level of efficiency in the run game.


In the passing game, here's how Thomas ranks in receiving yards per game among his peers:

Games Receiving
Rk Player From To Tm G GS Rec Yds Y/R TD Y/G
1 Ray Rice 2008 2011 RAV 48 34 188 1709 9.09 4 35.6
2 Jahvid Best 2010 2011 DET 19 10 73 669 9.16 3 35.2
3 Matt Forte 2008 2011 CHI 51 49 193 1782 9.23 8 34.9
4 Arian Foster 2009 2011 HTX 23 14 76 704 9.26 2 30.6
5 Frank Gore 2008 2011 SFO 42 40 147 1267 8.62 7 30.2
6 Reggie Bush 2008 2011 TOT 35 24 144 1054 7.32 9 30.1
7 Darren Sproles 2008 2011 TOT 51 6 154 1527 9.92 12 29.9
8 LeSean McCoy 2009 2011 PHI 34 18 127 949 7.47 3 27.9
9 Darren McFadden 2008 2011 RAI 41 26 108 1121 10.38 4 27.3
10 Maurice Jones-Drew 2008 2011 JAX 49 34 155 1320 8.52 5 26.9
11 Steven Jackson 2008 2011 RAM 45 43 137 1084 7.91 1 24.1
12 LaDainian Tomlinson 2008 2011 TOT 48 43 136 1144 8.41 2 23.8
13 Kevin Smith 2008 2010 DET 35 25 91 824 9.05 1 23.5
14 Pierre Thomas 2008 2011 NOR 38 15 106 853 8.05 5 22.4
15 Chris Johnson 2008 2011 OTI 50 47 150 1099 7.33 4 22.0
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/28/2011.


Thomas ranks a respectable 14th in this category, as he plays a key role in the Saints' screen-passing game. What's important to note here is how this stat/ranking can be adjusted for greater relevance.


First, of the players listed above him, a majority of them (I count eight or nine) are the central playmakers on their respective teams and as such, receive more opportunities. Second, Thomas directly shared pass-catching duties with Reggie Bush who himself logged impressive receiving numbers during the same period. 


That Thomas has been so productive in a frequently limited role again asserts his value and efficiency. 

In overall scoring, Thomas matches up like this:


Games Rushing Receiving Scoring
Rk Player From To Tm G GS Y/A TD Y/R TD Y/G TD ▾
1 Adrian Peterson 2008 2011 MIN 50 46 4.65 43 8.78 1 19.0 44
2 Maurice Jones-Drew 2008 2011 JAX 49 34 4.40 33 8.52 5 26.9 38
3 Chris Johnson 2008 2011 OTI 50 47 4.84 34 7.33 4 22.0 38
4 Thomas Jones 2008 2011 TOT 51 41 4.12 33 6.38 2 7.6 35
5 LaDainian Tomlinson 2008 2011 TOT 48 43 3.75 29 8.41 2 23.8 31
6 Willis McGahee 2008 2011 TOT 47 12 4.04 25 5.68 4 7.5 29
7 DeAngelo Williams 2008 2011 CAR 38 36 5.06 26 6.96 2 12.6 28
8 Frank Gore 2008 2011 SFO 42 40 4.32 20 8.62 7 30.2 27
9 Matt Forte 2008 2011 CHI 51 49 3.97 18 9.23 8 34.9 26
10 Tim Hightower 2008 2011 TOT 51 37 3.90 24 6.89 1 17.2 25
11 Joseph Addai 2008 2011 CLT 38 35 3.89 20 7.04 5 18.9 25
12 Ronnie Brown 2008 2011 TOT 44 38 4.06 23 7.43 0 13.5 23
13 Pierre Thomas 2008 2011 NOR 38 15 4.70 17 8.05 5 22.4 22
14 Peyton Hillis 2008 2011 TOT 44 22 4.37 19 8.18 3 16.5 22
17 Arian Foster 2009 2011 HTX 23 14 4.87 19 9.26 2 30.6 21
21 Steven Jackson 2008 2011 RAM 45 43 4.14 18 7.91 1 24.1 19
22 Jamaal Charles 2008 2011 KAN 49 18 6.07 12 8.94 6 21.3 19
23 Darren McFadden 2008 2011 RAI 41 26 4.80 15 10.38 4 27.3 19
26 LeSean McCoy 2009 2011 PHI 34 18 4.92 15 7.47 3 27.9 18
27 Ray Rice 2008 2011 RAV 48 34 4.58 13 9.09 4 35.6 17
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/28/2011.


Thomas comes in tied for 13th in total TDs over this time period. What's most interesting to note is the quality of players he's outperformed in this category; many of these players are considered among the elite, while Thomas is almost never mentioned as anything other than a role player. 


The last stats worth mentioning are "Success Rate" (SR) and "Expected Points Added" (EPA) that come courtesy of Advanced NFL Stats. Again, success rate measures the proportion of plays that a player is directly involved in that are considered successful. And expected points added measures a player's impact on the score of the game (more explanation here). 


For the 2008 and 2009 seasons--those being seasons that Thomas participated in fully--Thomas ranked second among all NFL RBs in success rate in both seasons. Moreover, Thomas finished first in EPA in 2008 and fourth in EPA in 2009. 


Most notably, these metrics reinforce the high level of efficiency Thomas delivers and the positive impact he brings when given the opportunity. His value, if these metrics are believed to be valid, is among the very best among his colleagues. 


Today however, Thomas' role in the Saints offense is less certain. 



For a large portion of 2010, Thomas remained sidelined with an ankle injury. 


Not only did the 2011 offseason bring the additions of Mark Ingram (a versatile back in the mold of Thomas) and Darren Sproles (perhaps the most explosive Saints' playmaker yet), but Chris Ivory's 2010 campaign was a revelation for the Saints' staff and fans alike. Ivory raw skills--his power and his speed--make him an important player in the Saints' diverse arsenal. 


With a paucity of consistent opportunities for the each of the myriad offensive weapons housed by the Saints, an ever-crowded backfield will likely continue to limit Thomas' role going forward, assuming the health of the Saints' backfield. 


While Thomas' role may continue to be peripheral this season, it seems like that choice is simply a function of the offensive diversity and depth of talent instead of a reflection of Thomas' skills and value. 


What Saints fans can take comfort in is the fact that when given the opportunities, Pierre Thomas is reliable, tough, versatile, efficient and performs among the best in the league.