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WR Michael Thomas joins New Orleans Saints for preseason road game as tensions improve

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Michael Thomas joined the New Orleans Saints in Baltimore for Saturday night's preseason opener -- the latest sign that tensions have eased between the team and its star receiver.

Thomas was seen on the sideline wearing a boot on his left ankle as he continues to recover from June ankle surgery. Yahoo Sports reported earlier this week that Thomas and Saints coach Sean Payton had a productive conversation and are not seeking a split.

Payton said Thomas was with the team at the start of training camp before going to Philadelphia to rehab with his ankle specialist, and came to Saturday's game in part because it was so close.

"He's part of the team. Look, it was great seeing him, he's doing well, he's ahead of schedule," Payton said after his team's 17-14 loss to the Ravens. "But outside of that, he's excited to be around these guys, and we're excited to have him around these guys. It's just right down the road [where Thomas is rehabbing]. But it wasn't this big 'Kumbaya' moment or anything like that."

When asked if they had a good conversation earlier this week, Payton said, "All of that was between he and I."

Tension had been building up this summer as Thomas decided to delay his ankle surgery until June. Although both sides agreed early in the offseason to see if Thomas' injury improved without surgery, sources said there was a lack of communication for a long period until Thomas showed up for the team's mandatory minicamp in June.

Payton made it clear at the start of training camp two weeks ago that he was disappointed the surgery didn't happen sooner.

"Obviously we would've liked that to happen earlier than later. And quite honestly, it should've," Payton said at the time.

Then earlier this week, after multiple reports cited sources suggesting that Thomas was to blame for the delay, Thomas showed his frustration on social media.

"They tried to damage your reputation. You saved theirs by not telling your side of the story," Thomas posted on Twitter.

Thomas also "liked" multiple posts that suggested the Saints urged Thomas to play through his injury without surgery last season -- and are now blaming him for not being healthy.

Thomas has not commented publicly on his reasons for delaying surgery.

Thomas missed a total of nine games last year after he originally suffered the injury in the final minutes of Week 1. He came back to play in Week 9, then went on the injured reserve list from Weeks 15 to 17 to heal up before returning again for the playoffs.

He finished with 40 catches for 438 yards in seven regular-season games and didn't catch his first touchdown pass until the playoffs. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported after the season that surgery was expected because Thomas had torn the deltoid, among other ligaments, in his ankle.

The Saints have not given an exact timetable for Thomas' return -- though sources have expressed optimism that he could return early in the season. He is currently on the physically unable to perform list and has not yet participated in practice.

Thomas, who was named the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year for 2019 after setting a league record with 149 catches, was also at the center of some discord last year when he was suspended for one game for punching teammate C.J. Gardner-Johnson in practice.

Both incidents have led to speculation that the Saints might seek a trade involving their star receiver. But that does not appear to be the team's current approach. And that would be less than ideal for New Orleans, considering its current roster and salary-cap situation.

The Saints are expected to field at least 11 new starters in Week 1 following quarterback Drew Brees' retirement, an offseason salary-cap purge, injuries to Thomas and kicker Wil Lutz and a pending suspension for defensive tackle David Onyemata.

Thomas is extremely important to the Saints' fortunes on the field after they parted ways with No. 2 receiver Emmanuel Sanders and veteran tight ends Jared Cook and Josh Hill this offseason.

Fourth-year receiver Tre'Quan Smith, second-year undrafted receiver Marquez Callaway and second-year tight end Adam Trautman appear to be their leading pass catchers outside of running back Alvin Kamara heading into this season.

Thomas, 28, is under contract through 2024 after signing a five-year extension in 2019 worth between $19.25 million and $20 million per year. His base salary for 2021 is only $1 million after the team converted most of it to a signing bonus earlier this offseason. If the Saints traded him, they would barely save anything against this year's cap -- and then would be hit with another $22.7 million in "dead money" against next year's cap from previous bonuses that have already been paid.