Michael Thomas will be out for the start of the 2021 season due to the ankle surgery he underwent in June of this year, following a left high ankle sprain suffered at the beginning of last year. The ankle sprain occurred in Week 1 of the 2020 season and sidelined him for six games thereafter; the whole season he took part in only 7 games and his total offensive output was much lower in comparison to the stellar season he had in the year prior. Let’s delve into how we found ourselves here today.
Now, high ankle sprains are a topic I’ve touched on before, but typically they can take 2-12 weeks to return from depending on the grade of injury and structures involved. We know that the deltoid ligament was one of ligaments involved as well as others,
per report, but this most likely also includes the interosseous membrane and/or the distal tibiofibular ligaments. The high ankle sprains tend to take around 4-6 weeks to heal, and while it seems like that’s the route Thomas originally took, that was not the end of the story. People who sustain high ankle sprains may continue to have functional limitations from continued ankle instability and/or pain, which was definitely the case here. Per Saints team report, after the 2020 season ended, the plan was to treat the ankle injury conservatively, hence all the resting time he had. Fast forward to early this year, things ended up not going as according to planned, so then surgery was required to properly repair and rehabilitate the ankle. It was reported in January 2021 that Thomas required surgery and it was expected to happen soon, but for some reason (we will discuss later) surgery got tabled until June 2021, after Saints minicamp already started.
According to a recent study examining return to play for pro-football players with high ankle sprains requiring surgery, the most important factors for return to play are the grade of high ankle sprain (meaning the amount/extent of structures involved), the age of player, and concomitant cartilage injury. High grades, greater age, and involvement of cartilage lead to a longer rehab and extended return time after surgery. At about 3-6 months post-surgery, the majority of athletes are seen returning to play, with the classification of a Grade III high ankle sprain falling to the longer end of the timeline. This places Thomas with a return somewhere around September to December of this year, meaning he would be able to come back this season if all goes well. We should see him back by around Week 7, but he can come earlier due to being on the active PUP list if he's feeling close to 100% earlier; the latest return would be around Week 13 or so.
The issue though isn’t so much when he’ll be physically ready to return. It’s when he will want to return. The fact that so much time passed from when he was supposed to have surgery (when the team wanted him to) and when it actually did happen screams of internal issues that we may not fully be aware of as fans. From an injury standpoint, you can expect him back in the later half of this season, fully rested and ready to go. With all the intermingling factors, however, my guess is as good as anybody’s as to when Thomas will be back with the Saints or potentially even some other team. Due to this unexpected timetable, Thomas is not a player you should keep very high up on your draft boards for this season. In terms of his dynasty, he still has potential to exhibit a high output season upon return, but he is heading into the latter stages of his career as a WR, which is something to keep in mind moving forward.