Michael Thomas Jersey

It popped out immediately the first time Michael Thomas looked at the schedule.

Week 1. Minnesota Vikings. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes. He knew it meant a huge test in the first game of his second pro season. He spent the offseason preparing for it.

“I knew that was going to be my matchup all year long,” Thomas said in September, before the game. “Monday night. Big stage against a very talented corner. We’ve been preparing since OTAs, pretty much.”

Then the game came. Rhodes didn’t. Thomas expected to be shadowed by the cornerback. Instead, during the Saints’ 29-19 loss on Sept. 11, Thomas and Rhodes only paired up on nine routes, and quarterback Drew Brees threw to Thomas twice.

He caught the first one on an in route for a gain of 8 yards. Rhodes held Thomas on the second one, but the receiver still picked up 14 yards on a curl route.

That was it. Rhodes only played 72.6 percent of the snaps during that game, though it’s unlikely the two players would have squared off more, as Rhodes mostly stayed to one side of the field.

It was a surprising outcome. Rhodes is one of the few NFL cornerbacks who typically shadows top receivers each week. Other cornerbacks like the Rams’ Trumaine Johnson (four catches, 51 yards) and Detroit’s Darius Slay (one catch, 4 yards) have given Thomas the star treatment.

Vikings columnist: Who’s to blame for Drew Brees with Saints? Let’s start with Nick Saban
Vikings columnist: Who’s to blame for Brees with Saints? Let’s start with Nick Saban
Since 1998, two Vikings teams have won 12 or more games. Drew Brees beat the 12-win 2009 Vikings in the NFC Championship Game and will try to beat the 13-win 2017 Vikings on Sunday.
For whatever reason, Minnesota did not. The Saints chalked it up to timing because it was Week 1 of the regular season.

“Beginning of the year and feeling different things,” wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. said. “Those first four games of the year, they’re kind of like up and down games. (The Vikings) came out on top. Whichever way they came out and did it, that’s what they did.”

Rhodes doesn’t appear to have issues with any receiver. He spent the season shadowing some of the NFL’s best players, each week dominating like a star singer covering a song recorded by a YouTube artist.

Antonio Brown walked away from Rhodes with four catches on eight targets for 54 yards. Mike Evans caught the same amount of passes for 36 yards. Julio Jones pulled in two catches on five targets for 26 yards. A.J. Green went 2-for-4 for 30 yards.

The only player who can claim victory over Rhodes is Detroit’s Marvin Jones Jr., who matched up with Rhodes on 84 percent of his routes, according to Pro Football Focus, and caught six passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns. But this came after Rhodes held Jones to one catch for 4 yards in Week 4.

That success is why the Saints know that wherever Rhodes lines up, whether it be on Thomas or someone else, they have to be careful in how they approach him.

“You line a guy up way outside the numbers, and he’s a tremendous corner. He’s someone who can get your hands on you, he’s real physical at the line of scrimmage, playing with a lot of confidence,” coach Sean Payton said. “I think you got to be smart when you’re throwing that direction and then you got to understand his leverage and what coverage they’re playing behind it.”

The Saints could see Minnesota approach things differently this week.

Saints film room: Here’s why the first game against the Vikings should be ignored
Saints film room: Here’s why the first game against the Vikings should be ignored
The schedule shows it happened this year.
Thomas has emerged as the No. 1 threat in the New Orleans passing offense, a fact that might not have been so obvious in Week 1 when the offense was still adjusting to life without Brandin Cooks. So it is possible the Vikings could choose to deploy Rhodes on Thomas this time around.

That would mean getting to watch the heavyweight battle that didn’t materialize — and it should be a good one if the brief glimmers in Week 1 mean anything.

In comparing the routes where both Thomas and Rhodes have success, there aren’t many glaring discrepancies. The things Thomas does well are also the things Rhodes defends well.

The one area where Thomas might have a clear advantage is on curl routes. The Saints receiver has caught 19-of-26 targets on curls this season, while Rhodes has surrounded catches on 11-of-15 targets for 101 yards, according to Sports Info Solutions.

But the Saints aren’t yet sure what they’ll see Sunday.

“You just kind of wait and see what you get, and you’re prepared for whatever might happen,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “Sometimes teams match us and sometimes they don’t for whatever reason. We don’t know. We just play what we’re given.”

If Thomas gets the matchup this week, all that studying he did before the season could finally pay off.