Surely you’ve watched him plenty. He has been a vital cog in the Saints’ machine over the past eight seasons, rising through the ranks of their perpetual running back platoon and emerging as the steadiest of their options – their rock.
Pierre Thomas is a player who seems to have been overlooked at every step of his career. Undrafted in 2007, he emerged a year later as a viable threat out of New Orleans’s backfield, rushing for nine touchdowns in tandem with Deuce McCalister and Reggie Bush.
Thomas’ YPC that 2008 season (4.8) greatly outclassed those of his teammates (3.9 and 3.8 respectively for McCalister and Bush). All three runners received over 100 carries, however Thomas’ 129 led the team, as he carved out a role as their most productive runner. Not only that, he was their most productive receiver as well, as while Bush’s 52 receptions were the most of any running back, Thomas’ yards-per-catch were greater than the Heisman winner’s Bush’s.
It seems the rest of Thomas’ career has been the waiting game, and there has not been that Ah-Ha! moment where the former Illini running back seized the backfield. From Reggie Bush, to Chris Ivory, to Darren Sproles, to Mark Ingram to Khiry Robinson – no matter which season, inevitably the Saints would feed three running backs, leaving Thomas’ potential greatly capped.
Despite never getting the chance to have the lion’s share of a backfield, Thomas has been a model of consistency. And while part of that consistency was his workload, he has contributed in every facet of the Saints’ potent offense, often doing the dirty work. It’s Thomas who stands back in the pocket next to Drew Brees – sometimes slipping out for a screen, other times observing and absorbing the blitz.
While his statistics may not show that he is one of the best in the league, Pro Football Focus’ metrics recognize him as such. From 2009-2013, Thomas finished the season ranked in the top-4 of all NFL running backs. He led NFL running backs in receiving in the 2013 season. Of Saints with at least 400 career carries, his 4.6-yard average is the best in franchise history. No matter how you slice it, Pierre Thomas was absolutely fundamental to the Saints’ success, something future-Hall of Famer Brees echoes – particularly noting Thomas’ ability as a pass catching running back.
“He’s one of the best screen runners there is, ever,” Brees told ESPN’s Saints beat writer Mike Triplett last offseason. “He does such a great job of timing, setting up his blocks, just hitting those seams and hitting the sidewalk. He does a phenomenal job at it.
“You see these young guys [Ingram, Robinson and Travaris Cadet] starting to pick up on a little bit of those traits, too. Sproles was great at it. But Pierre can do everything. He’s the best all-purpose back in the league in my opinion. Run, pass, screen game, pass protection … you name it, he can do it.”
That is lofty praise from Brees, a player who’s as well regarded as any in the league. However that praise is also functional, as the Ravens find themselves transitioning to Marc Trestman’s offense, where the running back screen is more or less a staple. Since 1995, Marc Trestman has been involved with eleven different NFL offenses as an offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach or head coach. There are only three seasons in those eleven in which one receiver out of the backfield didn’t have at least 50 receptions. Meanwhile, Pierre Thomas has been targeted over 50 times in each of the past four seasons. Think maybe the Ravens and Trestman could find a role for ol’ Pierre?
Here is the catch (if you want to call it that): Thomas, like Justin Forsett, is entering his age-30 season. As a running back, that is not a good thing. However, Thomas – again, like Forsett – has the advantage (though they would disagree) of not shouldering the whole workload for the majority of their careers. Forsett has less wear & tear than Thomas, as Pierre was frequently involved in bruising work for the Saints; however, that doesn’t mean that both don’t have productive years left.
The consensus among Saints fans is that Thomas has been the best running back the Saints have had for years, and many lament the fact that Sean Payton was so hell-bent on using a three-man committee. Mark Ingram (finally) came on the scene in 2014 and seized the backfield, relegating Pierre Thomas to the backburner for good. The Saints announced his release today.
In addition, while Thomas has been a stalwart player and teammate, he has been a standout citizen as well, serving the New Orleans community immensely in his time in The Big Easy. Like Forsett, he is the kind of player you can be proud to have in your organization.
So, what this comes down to is Forsett, really. If there is a significant market for Forsett (someone willing to give multiple years), then it would probably be in the Ravens’ best interest to look for their running backs elsewhere. In that scenario, Thomas is at the top of my list.
You aren’t going to find many running backs who perform in all facets of the game better than Thomas. Not to mention, it would sure seem useful to have his tutelage for the younger running backs in the screen game, especially with Trestman’s arrival in town.
Lastly, those who have watched him plenty know that Thomas’ statistics often belie the actual work that went into them. Thomas is going to do whatever it takes to help the team, and this involves grueling efforts seemingly against all odds. A look at the following run should help illustrate that point:
Am I proposing that the Ravens go and give Pierre Thomas the bellcow opportunity he never had? No. But he would provide instant security in the backfield and, if given a chance, could just prove to be 2015’s Justin Forsett.