METAIRIE, La. — New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas hardly stopped smiling as he fielded questions about his first chance this week to run routes for Derek Carr — the quarterback he helped recruit.
“Just to come out here and be around the guys and the camaraderie, that’s what I miss the most,” Thomas said, adding that he sensed an opportunity "to build something special and chase something special and win a lot of games.”
Thomas, who missed all but the first three games of last season with a foot injury, and who has played in just 10 games the past three regular seasons combined, participated in a voluntary practice Tuesday for the first time this offseason.
While he did not take part in team drills, he wore a helmet and his white No. 13 practice jersey, ran routes off to the side for Saints quarterbacks and played catch with an assistant coach.
Thomas predicted that by training camp, he'll be “full speed, just like the old days and what everyone’s used to.”
Thomas hasn't made it through even half of a regular season since 2019, when he set an NFL record with 149 receptions and was named All-Pro for a second straight year.
Ankle problems caused him to miss nine games in 2020 and all of 2021. He began last season healthy and caught three touchdown passes before his latest injury.
Thomas could have chosen to remain off the field at least until mandatory minicamp next week. So, his eagerness to join the team this week was gratifying to coaches and teammates.
“Everybody feels that energy when he’s here,” coach Dennis Allen said. “So, I think it’s important for him to be here and he wants to be here and he’s excited about what we can potentially do this season.”
Carr said it was “just cool to have him” around.
“I know everyone was excited to see him,” Carr said. "Everybody loves him here. You know, they love his work ethic. They love his competitiveness, his leadership, the way he plays, the way he practices.”
Carr spent his first nine NFL seasons with the Raiders before entering free agency last winter and joining New Orleans. Carr recalled how Thomas influenced his decision to sign with the Saints.
“He was very important,” Carr recalled. “Flash forward to now. A lot of time has gone by, but I couldn’t wait till he got in the building.”
And it sounds like the feeling is mutual.
“Can’t wait to play with him and just be out there and execute and create something special with him,” Thomas said. “He wants to win just like I want to win. He’s just very disciplined. He’s on top of his stuff. He came here for a reason.”
Carr said he first started throwing to Thomas at Saints headquarters Monday, the day before this week's set of voluntary practices began.
Carr said he's been learning what Thomas liked about playing with Saints all-time passer Drew Brees, who retired after the 2020 season. Meanwhile, Carr has been explaining what he liked about throwing to top receivers he's played with, such as Davante Adams, to see if Thomas was comfortable linking up in similar ways.
One thing Carr said he won't do is pridefully dictate how Thomas should handle the receiver's end of a passing play.
“I don’t care who’s right," Carr said. “I care what’s right.”
The Saints have missed the playoffs the past two seasons, but by no more than a victory or two each season. Not having Thomas available for 31 games in that span hasn't helped.
Now Thomas, who turned 30 in March, has rejoined the team on a one-year, $10 million contract. He said he's been doing everything he can to return to form.
“I’ve just been grinding, man," Thomas said when asked about his past eight months. “I know what’s expected from me. I know what my job is. I know the type of player I’m capable of being.”