Michael Thomas and The Art of Manipulating Defensive Backs
Catching the ball with your hands is an important trait for any NFL wide receiver. Not only are you more likely to be efficient catching the ball that way rather than trapping it into your body, it’s also an important trait for beating tight coverage. Using your hands allows you to pull the ball in away from your body on contested catches.
This is more important in the NFL than in college because of the sheer quality of NFL defensive backs.
As such, when it comes to evaluating wide receiver prospects leading up to the draft one of the things that should be emphasized is a player’s ability to make catches with their hands. Body catching has become a trait that is widely acknowledged as a negative. It’s not always a negative, there are situations where catching the ball into your body is the smarter approach. In the NFL, Michael Crabtree is the best example of a receiver who always understands how to approach the ball in the air.
Crabtree can make catches with his hands away from his body, but he stands out for his ability to set up YAC and manipulate defensive backs by body-catching the ball. Crabtree is the receiver who immediately comes to mind when watching Ohio State’s Michael Thomas.
Thomas is a big receiver. He measured in at 6’3″ and 212 lbs at the combine. He didn’t test as a great athlete but he will be fast enough to threaten defenses deep in the NFL, while making decisive cuts and relying on his strength to beat defenders through his routes. In the above play, Thomas easily beats press coverage by threatening outside with one quick step before straightening his stem.
Once he is seven yards downfield, Thomas makes an aggressive cut while using his upper body to exaggerate the separation and give his quarterback a wide window to lead him into. Thomas can comfortably catch the ball into his chest because of the route he ran.
Setting up his routes is something Thomas excels at. Whether facing press or off coverage, Thomas has the traits to excel. He not only understands how to set defenders up so they can’t track him where he wants to go, but he also executes those actions with perfect timing and precision.
He can also absorb big hits to maintain control of the ball.
Those are foundational traits of Thomas’ skill set. They’re the boring ones. The fascinating one is the one that makes him like Crabtree.
On this play, Thomas runs his curl route and is open but the ball arrives late. When the pass is thrown, it’s thrown to his outside shoulder. Thomas could catch the ball with his hands outstretched away from his body. It would allow him to secure it without moving his feet. Instead, he is comfortable shifting his weight and essentially jump-cutting through the ball.
He retrieves the ball on his outside shoulder with his hands hugging the ball. Catching the ball this way allowed him to move further towards the sideline, away from the arriving defender, while transitioning into a body contortion to run downfield. Thomas does all this in one motion, making it extremely difficult for the defender covering him to impact the play.
Working back to the ball is important when the ball isn’t thrown on time, it’s also important when tightly covered. Thomas regularly works through the ball so that he is still creating separation against defenders even as he is catching the ball. You need to be aware when doing this because it can give the defensive back an opportunity to break on the ball if you try it in the wrong scenario.
Thomas will need to prove that consistency against NFL caliber opponents but it was there in college.
The most dangerous receivers in the league aren’t just explosive, they are also technically sound. Using your feet as you catch the ball is hugely important for setting up YAC opportunities. On this simple example you can see how Thomas adjusts to a pass that is thrown slightly too far behind him. The ball should ideally lead him towards the line of scrimmage, but instead it pushes him back in the wrong direction.
Thomas stretches out his left foot, putting more pressure on that leg and using it aggressively to immediately stop his momentum and push back towards the line of scrimmage. This willingness to stretch his leg out as the ball arrives allows Thomas to make one immediate and decisive movement in the right direction. He doesn’twaste any motion or time creating yards with the ball in his hands.
Many receivers in this situation will bring both feet back as they adjust to catch the ball. Bringing both feet back drags your momentum further backwards and elongates the transition into turning upfield.
Even though Thomas is tall and relatively heavy, he consistently shows off great body control and quick, balanced feet when transitioning from catching the ball to running with it. On both of these plays, you can see how Thomas snares the ball while turning his body. He doesn’t take his eyes off the ball until he has secured it and doesn’t hesitate once it hits his hands. Because Thomas has begun turning his body as he catches the ball, he can immediately shift his weight when he turns to face the arriving defender.
On each of these plays, Thomas is creating YAC having caught the ball in a pocket of space underneath. Although he deserves credit for often creating that space, these still aren’t true contested catch situations.
Because he’s not exceptionally fluid or quick, Thomas is going to have to rely on his size in the NFL. To get the most out of that size, he will have to show off a wide catch radius by using his hands away from his body. He won’t be completely reliant on making those types of receptions because he can manipulate defensive backs with his size, strength and intelligence at the catch point.
On this play, Thomas doesn’t high-point the ball or fully extend to pull a pass in over the sideline. The ball is thrown infield and over the defensive back so he has to use his size and strength to manipulate the defender, creating a path for the ball to cleanly get to him. Like a pass-rusher coming off the edge, Thomas uses one fully extended arm to fend the defender off while he uses two. This keeps the defensive back away from his body and allows Thomas to snatch the ball out of the air at the last moment.
Even though Thomas didn’t reach away from his body the defender had no chance of finding the ball because of how Thomas manipulated him. Every aspect of this play was important for Thomas. Had he used two hands, the defender would have gotten too close to him if he had only used one. Had he extended his hands earlier to locate the ball, the defender would have been able to read his hands and play them as the ball arrived.
These aren’t flashy plays, but they are the types of plays that can work in the NFL if executed properly. Michael Crabtree isn’t the biggest receiver in the league and even though he can make spectacular catches, he prefers to set up easier ones with his actions before the ball arrives.
You don’t need to be a freak athlete to be a quality receiver in the NFL. You don’t have to make spectacular catches all the time either. You do have to be able to use your hands to catch the ball and not be reliant on catching it into your body, but if you’re smart in your approach, like Thomas is, you can body-catch the ball to create space and manipulate defensive backs.
Thomas manipulates defenders with his routes and his play at the catch point. He should immediately be a quality starter in the NFL because of his understanding and execution in both areas.