NFL Winners and Losers: Lamar Jackson is MVP, but Michael Thomas is having one of the greatest WR seasons ever

Yahoo Sports

It’s too bad wide receivers can’t win NFL Most Valuable Player.

There’s no rule against a receiver winning, but it has never happened. Jerry Rice didn’t even get one. It would take something incredible for a receiver to take the NFL’s top award.

If it was a realistic possibility and Lamar Jackson didn’t exist in 2019, New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas would be a great pick as the first receiver to win NFL MVP.

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Thomas is having one of the best seasons a receiver has ever had. His value was obvious in the fourth quarter Sunday. The Titans cut the Saints’ lead to 31-28. The Saints needed a win in the race for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. The Saints went to Thomas three straight plays, with Thomas catching all three for two first downs. Thomas tied the NFL single-season reception record on his third straight catch, on a pass from Taysom Hill. Everyone knows to throw to Thomas.

Thomas broke the receptions record later in the fourth quarter. He spun Tennessee Titans cornerback Logan Ryan around to get open, caught a pass to set the record, stiff-armed Ryan and almost got in the end zone. He was initially ruled in, but a review showed that his knee was down at the 1-yard line. No matter, Thomas scored a 1-yard touchdown two plays later to put the game away. He had 12 catches for 136 yards and a touchdown. The Saints won 38-28.

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Drew Brees is great, Alvin Kamara reemerged Sunday, Jared Cook has been a great addition, Sean Payton is a tremendous coach and the Saints have a capable defense. But Thomas has been the Saints’ defining player all season. Saints opponents know Thomas is getting the ball, and they simply can’t stop it. Brees missed five games earlier this season and Kamara also missed some time in that stretch. Thomas didn’t miss a game. The Saints went 5-0 in those games Brees missed. It’s rare for a receiver to be this important to a team.

Thomas is going to shatter Marvin Harrison’s single-season receptions record, a mark that had not been challenged. Harrison had 143 catches in 2002. Nobody else before Thomas this season posted more than 136. Before Thomas, only two receivers other than Harrison even passed 130 receptions in a season. Thomas has 145 with a game to go. He will likely be the first to 150 in a year, and even 160 can’t be totally ruled out. It might be a while before someone breaks Thomas’ record.

Unless Thomas does it again before he’s done.

Thomas’ efficiency has been incredible. According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas had caught 133 of 155 targets before this week. He had six drops all season. That’s remarkable, especially considering the Saints don’t really have a true No. 2 wide receiver.

Rice caught 22 touchdowns in 12 games in 1987. Calvin Johnson made a run at 2,000 yards in 2012. Randy Moss’ 23-touchdown season in 2007 is iconic, as is his rookie season with the Vikings. But you can put Thomas’ 2019 alongside any of the great receiver seasons in history. He has been unbelievable.

The Saints knew they couldn’t afford to mess around when it looked like Thomas could hold out earlier this season. They gave Thomas a five-year, $100 million deal, the most ever at that point for a receiver in NFL history. He was the first non-quarterback player on offense to get a $100 million deal.

The Saints knew Thomas’ value and gave him what he wanted. Jackson will be the right MVP pick for voters, but it wouldn’t be bad if Thomas got NFL offensive player of the year as a consolation prize.

Wide receiver Michael Thomas broke the NFL's single-season receptions record on Sunday. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
Wide receiver Michael Thomas broke the NFL's single-season receptions record on Sunday. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Sunday’s Week 16 action in the NFL:

WINNERS

Kliff Kingsbury: There was plenty of rightful skepticism when the Arizona Cardinals hired Kingsbury. He got fired because he didn’t win enough at Texas Tech. The NFL is harder than the Big 12. 

But Kingsbury has had a promising rookie season. The Cardinals’ shocking 27-13 win over the Seattle Seahawks changes the NFC playoff picture, and sends the Cardinals into the offseason with a lot of positive vibes. 

The Cardinals got another huge game out of Kenyan Drake, which proves that Kingsbury is at least a better NFL coach than Adam Gase. Drake has exploded since leaving the Dolphins, who never used him right. Drake’s 80-yard touchdown set the tone and his 3-yard touchdown put the game away. The Cardinals won despite losing Kyler Murray to a hamstring injury late in the first half. It was impressive. 

The Cardinals didn’t expect to compete this season, but there was real progress. The arrow seems to be pointing up for Kingsbury after one year. 

Vic Fangio: It’s hard to say Fangio’s first season as the head coach of the Denver Broncos was a success. But it hasn’t been as bad as it could have been. 

The Broncos have mostly stayed competitive. Sure, the Chiefs loss in the snow was dispiriting in many ways, but Denver isn’t on the Chiefs’ level. Everyone knows that. 

But there has been growth. Drew Lock has given the team a nice late-season boost. Denver faced some adversity early against the Detroit Lions, falling behind, but battled back for a 27-17 win. The Broncos are 6-9 and had a couple of extremely close games early in the season gone their way, it would be a sunnier outlook. 

There’s a long way to go before we figure out if Fangio was the right hire. But the Broncos have continued to play hard for him, there have been some positive steps, and that’s not a bad thing heading into the offseason. 

Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens’ 2018 draft: Newsome went out with a bang.

The Baltimore Ravens’ longtime general manager presided over his last draft in 2018. He left some gifts. The best pick, and one of the best picks in team history, was the last one of the first round. The Ravens took Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson. Jackson is the obvious MVP of the 2019 season.

A big reason Jackson has been so good is tight end Mark Andrews. Andrews was a third-round pick and the second tight end the Ravens selected, which seemed odd. Andrews has become one of the best receiving tight ends in the NFL and a perfect fit for Jackson, who is masterful throwing to the middle of the field.

Jackson and Andrews turned Sunday’s game around as the Ravens clinched the No. 1 seed. The Ravens were struggling early, trailing 6-0 to the Cleveland Browns. Then Jackson found Andrews for a touchdown inside the two-minute warning to give the Ravens the lead. Then a little more than a minute later, Andrews and Jackson hooked up for another score just before halftime. The score was 14-6 and given the Browns’ problems, it seemed clear the game was over. Baltimore won 31-15. Jackson threw three touchdowns and no interceptions.

The rest of the Ravens’ 2018 draft has been up and down, though Orlando Brown is another big hit at offensive tackle. But Newsome’s final draft will be remembered for Jackson, and don’t forget about Andrews as well.

Julio Jones: It hasn’t been the greatest season for the Atlanta Falcons, but Jones is always a bright spot.

We’re probably going to look back at the NFL’s all-time team in its 100th season and laugh that Jones wasn’t one of the receivers. Jones reached 12,000 career receiving yards Sunday, in his 125th game. He is the fastest to that mark, 17 games faster than Jerry Rice. Rice is the best receiver ever, and Jones just shattered one of his yardage marks.

Jones is finishing strong too. He had a monster game against the San Francisco 49ers in an upset win, including the game-winning touchdown with two seconds left, and went over 100 yards against the Jaguars on Sunday. He finished with 166 yards on 10 catches in a 24-12 win. Jones has the mark for most receiving yards per game in NFL history and it’s not close; he had 95.8 yards per game before Week 16 and Michael Thomas and Odell Beckham Jr. were tied for second at 87.5.

Jones is one of the greatest of all time, and him not being on the NFL’s top 100 list is just wrong.

Ryan Fitzpatrick: One of these days, all the starting quarterback slots in the NFL will be filled and Fitzpatrick will fade away.

But the Miami Dolphins quarterback has given us some fun moments. Sunday was another one. Fitzpatrick was on fire. His fourth touchdown of the day gave Miami a 28-6 lead. The Bengals stormed back to send the game to overtime in one of the craziest games of the 2019 season, but it’s not like that was all Fitzpatrick’s fault. Then Fitzpatrick came up with some key plays in overtime as the Dolphins rallied for a 38-35 win. He played well, as he has done most of this season in a tough spot. Fitzpatrick finished with 419 yards and four touchdowns.

There was a reason Brian Flores turned to Fitzpatrick. While the wins the Dolphins have compiled with Fitzpatrick clearly hurt their draft standing and might even cost them their preferred quarterback prospect, it’s also good for Flores as he builds his program to get wins and good vibes into the offseason. Miami has gone from the laughingstock of the NFL early this season to a team that competes most weeks. Fitzpatrick’s play has elevated young pass catchers like DeVante Parker and tight end Mike Gesecki. There’s value in that.

Fitzpatrick turned 37 last month and presumably the Dolphins don’t want him to be their starter in 2020. They’ll want a young quarterback to develop as they rebuild. But Fitzpatrick’s contributions won’t be forgotten.

LOSERS

Amari Cooper: Of all the disappointing members of the Dallas Cowboys — and really, that list is too long for this space — Cooper ranks very high. 

Cooper still isn’t past the inconsistency that defined his time with the Oakland Raiders. Since a huge 147-yard game against the Vikings on Nov. 10, Cooper hasn’t been a big factor. He had games of 38, 0 and 19 yards between then and Sunday, and hadn’t gone over 100 yards since that game against Minnesota. 

The Cowboys needed him against the Eagles, who have had a lot of trouble defending outside receivers, and Cooper disappeared in a crushing 17-9 loss. He had about as many drops as catches. Before Dallas’ final drive, Cooper had two catches for 12 yards on nine targets. He caught a couple short passes on that drive, but then he was surprisingly not even in the game on fourth down. Not that he would have made a play anyway. Dak Prescott’s pass to Michael Gallup was broken up. 

Early this season it seemed Cooper was a good bet to get a big extension. He’s in the final year of his contract. After fading away for most of the final two months this season, that seems like a much riskier investment. 

Los Angeles Chargers: Everyone gave up on the Chargers long ago. Or, perhaps more accurately, nobody cared about them in the first place. 

So very few people really noticed Sunday’s bad postscript to a disappointing season. 

The 24-17 loss to the Oakland Raiders summed up the 2019 Chargers pretty well. They had no home-field advantage, of course. But the Raiders fans in Carson got a nice show, as Oakland showed its first signs of life in weeks. The same Raiders team that couldn’t even beat Jacksonville last week in its final home game in Oakland entirely outplayed the Chargers. 

There are likely some significant changes coming. There are still some good core players, but it’s clear the roster isn’t good enough to win much. Not that anyone in Los Angeles will be paying attention to how they rebuild it. 

New York Giants, yes and no: If you’re the Giants, you want Daniel Jones to end the season on a high note. You want Saquon Barkley to look like his elite self.

But remember Sunday’s overtime win over the Washington Redskins when Ohio State pass rusher Chase Young is wrecking quarterbacks for the next decade. The Giants likely cost themselves the second pick of the draft, which will very likely be Young if LSU quarterback Joe Burrow goes first, with an overtime victory.

Maybe it matters and maybe it doesn’t, depending on what you think about tanking vs. playing to win every week even when you’re far out of the playoff race, but the Giants have to be happy with Jones’ 352 yards and five touchdowns (including the game-winning toss in overtime), and Barkley’s 279 total yards. That’s great. But now the Redskins are 3-12, and the Giants are 4-11.

That will sting a bit come draft time.

Perry Fewell: Fewell is likely the most anonymous of the 32 current NFL coaches, and that might not be a bad thing.

Fewell was named the Carolina Panthers’ interim coach when Ron Rivera was fired. He was named captain of a sinking ship.

The Panthers can’t wait for the season to end, and it shows. They are getting blown out every week, and Week 16 was more of the same. The Colts absolutely pounded them 38-6. Rookie quarterback Will Grier predictably didn’t help much. It’s bad enough to get beat, but defensive tackle Vernon Butler being ejected for punching Colts tight end Jack Doyle and then flipping off fans brought a new level of embarrassment.

Fewell has been in this position before, and went 3-4 as coach of the 2009 Buffalo Bills. So at least he has a positive experience as an NFL head coach. What is happening to him and the Panthers over the last month of this season is hideous.

Pittsburgh Steelers: It was fairly amazing the Steelers were 8-5 and in line to get the sixth seed in the AFC. Their offense is not playoff caliber, and that has shown up the past couple weeks.

The Steelers followed up a loss to the Bills in Week 15 with a rough loss to the New York Jets on Sunday. The Steelers benched Devlin Hodges, and Mason Rudolph gave them a quick spark, but it didn’t last. Pittsburgh lost 16-10 to a bad Jets team. Rudolph left late with an injury and Hodges couldn’t lead a game-winning drive.

Pittsburgh has a challenging offseason ahead. Ben Roethlisberger should be back, but it’s no guarantee he’ll be his usual self after elbow surgery. Hodges and Rudolph aren’t the answer. And Pittsburgh won’t be in a draft position to get a top college prospect.

The Steelers aren’t out of the wild-card race despite two straight losses, but even if the Steelers make it, it’s highly unlikely they can make any noise. The offense just isn’t good enough.

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

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