The concept of a No. 1 receiver is often misunderstood. The term is certainly overused.
There are not 32 Andre Johnsons in the NFL: Big, physical, fast targets with good hands, who can run deep or go fearlessly across the middle, who consistently draw double coverage or make defenses pay a giant price for not paying sufficient attention.
Johnson is a No. 1 wide receiver and he’s the Texans' No. 1 wide receiver.
As the Jacksonville Jaguars sit in lockout limbo, their No. 1 wide receiver is Mike Thomas. Whether he can become a true No. 1 receiver remains to be seen. But if he does so it will be in the style of Carolina’s Steve Smith, a climb made despite not fitting the ideal height/weight/speed mold.
Thomas, who’s listed at 5-foot-8 and 198 pounds, did run a 4.3 40 at the scouting combine before the Jaguars drafted him in the fourth round out of Arizona in 2009. But he is on a run-first team where running back Maurice Jones-Drew and tight end Marcedes Lewis rank as primary threats in the passing game. He’s branded as a slot receiver, a tag that often denotes limitations. At this stage, many know him solely as the guy who caught David Garrard's Hail Mary that was batted by Glover Quin and beat the Houston Texans last season.
“I think highly of myself and I think that’s the only way to be,” he said. “I see that kind of stuff and I just kind of smile at it and laugh. We’ll see what happens. It’s not my job or I don’t care about it as much when people say those kinds of things. It comes with the territory. It doesn’t deter me from what I believe …
“Whatever jargon people can come up with, it’s nothing but fuel when you believe you’re just as good as some of the other receivers that they tend to give this high praise to. People tend to look over you, to look past you … I love it, getting that from people. When they see what I am doing on the field, they think differently. I think I am more than a slot receiver and that’s the way I go about my business.”
In his second season, Thomas had 66 catches for 820 yards and four touchdowns. (He also ran for 114 as a dangerous weapon on end-arounds.) If he makes the same reception jump he made from his rookie year to his second season, he’d be in line for 91 catches in a full season in 2011.
He wants 1,000 yards receiving and points to four games in 2010 where he had two catches or fewer. If he can be more of a factor in those four games, he should rack up more than the extra 180 yards that stood between him and the magical 1,000-yard mark.
He’s spent the lockout working out at Arizona, studying coverages and paying particular attention to defensive linemen and linebackers to get a better sense of the people he’s often got to get through before dealing with defensive backs.
Aware of the analysts who cite his limitations, he’s also seen himself on some lists of potential breakout players. He intends to make those predictions look good.
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said Thomas is not one of the league’s 12 or 15 true No. 1 receivers, but offers a very positive review of him.
“I love Thomas,” Williamson said. “He might not ever be as good as either Wes Welker or Steve Smith in their prime, but he kind of a mixture of both players. He’s very explosive in a short area. He’s quick. He has great burst. He’s got a strong body despite his small stature. He runs well after the catch. He runs good routes and has good hands.”
Williamson said while the Jaguars could use a strong possession receiver, they can be OK entering the season with their current cast. Jason Hill is likely to be the other starting wide receiver, a healthy Jarett Dillard may be the third wideout, and understudies to Jones-Drew and Lewis, Rashad Jennings and Zach Miller, can also contribute. The team told Mike Sims-Walker before the lockout that it would not look to re-sign him as a free agent.
Thomas said it’s not so hard to shine as a receiver in a run-based offense, citing Roddy White in Atlanta as a prime example.
“I’m a receiver and I love to catch the ball, so of course I’d love to see us throw it more,” Thomas said. “At the same time I stay in my lane and I respect what kind of team we are, the guys I play with.”
He got a little work with first-round draft pick Blaine Gabbert during a recent player-organized practice and their relationship could be a key one for Jacksonville in the years to come.
But for now, Thomas expects Garrard to be under center.
“We’ll just have to see what happens at camp, and hopefully that’s soon,” he said. “The team’s come out publicly and said Gabbert’s going to take a year and develop and get some coaching. That being said, if it’s Dave, we’re going to continue to run with Dave. I think Dave is a hell of a quarterback. We hope he can get us in position to make a playoff push. If it’s Gabbert, then we’ll do the same thing with Gabbert.
“Whoever it is, I think it’s going to be a fantastic time.”
He’s more concerned with getting a chance to say “We’re No. 1” than “I am a No. 1.”