Walter Jones was not just the best player at his position in the NFL during his time with the Seahawks; he joined the conversation for the best of all-time at what he did. Earl Thomas, who reportedly agreed to a four year extension yesterday, has reached base camp on his climb to the top, as most recognize his place as the best safety on today’s NFL. He has not yet entered the discussion for best of all-time, but he may already be the rarest talent the Seattle Seahawks franchise has ever seen.
As great as Jones was at left tackle, there is a pretty long list of great left tackles, and just about every year in the draft a team can find one or two new franchise left tackles to anchor their line. The same cannot be said about safeties, especially free safeties. That does not diminish how great Jones was. It just highlights the variety of factors that lead to a great player at that position are more common than the ones that lead to a great safety.
Among those factors is how much more scheme matters for a safety. A left tackle drafted by any team is largely going to play the same role, regardless of the offense the team runs. Seattle plays a defensive scheme that very few, if any, other free safeties could manage. Not all safety roles are the same. Not all defensive schemes emphasize safety play. Many put more responsibility on the cornerbacks. Others commonly ask two safeties to do what Seattle asks Thomas to do on his own.
No team plays more single-high free safety defenses than the Seahawks. Thomas is asked to cover sideline-to-sideline on deep passes, and also race to the line to support against the run. One could argue that he is the cork that keeps the Seahawks ship afloat. Pull him out, and the whole thing starts to sink.
This is a team built on defense. Seattle has found a series of cornerbacks who could play at a Pro Bowl level, or very close to it. The reason is not because they know cornerbacks better than every other NFL team. It is because they ask corners to do so much less because of Thomas, and there is a larger pool of corners that can excel at that more streamlined job description. Kam Chancellor is possibly the best strong safety in the NFL. He has a place on the field because Thomas eliminates the need for two deep cover safeties. That allows Chancellor to enforce near the line and help with tight ends. There is a reason many teams do not have true strong safeties any longer.
In a league that is passing the ball more often, for more yards, with rules that favor the offense, Seattle stands out in pass defense and their ability to limit big plays. Thomas, again, is the player ultimately responsible for protecting against deep passes. The last time he may have been beaten deep on a play where he had clear responsibility may have been his first pre-season game when Aaron Rodgers did it on the very first play from scrimmage.
We have not even fully witnessed all his speed can do on the field. There was the blurring interception return for touchdown in that same rookie year pre-season against Brett Favre and the Vikings, but Thomas has yet to replicate that in a regular season game. Sure, he has returned interceptions for touchdowns, but not at such hypersonic speed. He has had a number of near misses at the opponent goal line. It is only a matter of time before Thomas has one or more 90+ yard pick-six plays.
You can go back five years or ahead five years and not find another Earl Thomas. The last free safety that merits comparison is Ed Reed, who was drafted in 2002. The last Seahawks safety that compares to Thomas, at least in terms of quality, is Kenny Easley, who was drafted in 1981.
They do not make them like Earl Thomas very often. Quarterbacks across the NFL are comforted by that fact. Seahawks fans have already had the pleasure of witnessing one of the best players in franchise history. Now we see just how high Thomas can climb.