Forget the debate about whether Earl Thomas is the best safety in the NFL right now. In many ways, it misses the point of what Thomas means to Seattle.
The Seahawks locked up the 24-year-old Thomas to a four-year contract Monday that will make him the highest-paid player at his position, a nod to how the Seahawks view the debate. It was an expected but important move.
Thomas is not just a hardworking, ballhawking free safety. He is the most important player on Seattle’s defense, something people around the league are quick to point out. Thomas’ speed, his instincts and his range allow the rest of Seattle’s secondary, and therefore the rest of Seattle’s defense, to play the aggressive style that has come to define them.
“Just ask them this: Rate the players on how hard they would be to replace,” former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said last season. “See where Earl comes up. If you told (defensive coordinator) Dan Quinn, what one guy could you ill afford to lose, it’s Earl Thomas.”
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Angelo added, “You don’t see guys like Earl Thomas. When you have a center fielder who can play like that, he can cover a lot of weaknesses of other players. Not just in the secondary but in the whole defense.”
Former Seahawks safety Chris Maragos liked to call Thomas a fire extinguisher because of the big plays he eliminated. But if Thomas was a fire extinguisher, Maragos said, he put out a lot of his fires before they ever sparked.
“One of the things you don’t see but that exists is the factor he plays just being back there,” coach Pete Carroll said last season. “Think about the last couple years when you’ve seen a post route, which is one of the most common routes in football, thrown at our defense for a big play. Doesn’t happen. I can barely remember any.”
Thomas just finished the best season of his four-year career and made his third Pro Bowl. He entered last year facing questions about missed tackles, so he became a more efficient tackler. He wanted to drop fewer potential interceptions, so he picked off five passes.
He hasn’t missed a game in four seasons, and he’s one of Seattle’s most respected players because he brings the same intensity every day. From his post deep in the middle of the field, he allows Seattle’s cornerbacks to play aggressively while freeing up fellow safety Kam Chancellor to play his crushing style near the line of scrimmage.
“You can’t play the way Seattle plays without him being able to do that,” said NFL Network analyst Charles Davis last year.
Teammates say Thomas plays even faster than his blazing time in the 40-yard dash. What they mean is that Thomas studies so much film, and he trusts his instincts so much, that he is often able to read and react to developing plays quicker than most players.
“He’s one of the hardest practice players that I’ve been around,” defensive coordinator Quinn said last season. “During my time in San Francisco, Bryant Young was a guy like that. When he stepped on the grass, it was business. During my time in Miami, Junior Seau was that way. Seeing how hard Earl practices, it gives me a feeling like I know where this guy is headed.”
Against St. Louis last year, Thomas closed a 23-yard gap to deliver a welt-producing hit on Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens and stop him short of a first down. Later in the game, Clemens rolled out from Seattle’s 3 with the Rams down eight. It looked like he might have been able to run in for a touchdown, but he threw an incomplete pass instead.
Clemens admitted to reporters that Thomas’ closing speed lingered in the back of his mind.
“That’s the kind of impact great players have, meaning that even though they’re not there, their opponent might think they are,” Carroll said. “We had a chance to talk to Bill Russell, and he talked specifically about that. The guys we saw on the videos we showed our players talked about his presence, that you weren’t sure if he was there or not and it affected if you shot or not and the decision you made.
“That’s what great players do. They have a presence that extends beyond maybe even their own physical range.”
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org