Since he was selected 14th overall in the 2010 draft out of Texas, Seattle Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas has been one of the NFL's defensive standard-bearers. Thomas replaced Ed Reed as the game's best deep safety, and in an era when three-receiver sets and speedy slot receivers are the norm, having a player of Thomas' quality at his position is more important than ever.
If you don't have a credible safety to play the deep third of the defense from sideline to sideline and to the end zone, you're going to have a lot of trouble defending the modern passing offense.
Seattle's defense isn't going to be better without Thomas for any length of time. But a rebuilding team looking to free up salary-cap room for that construction project over the next few seasons isn't going to be as sensitive to that notion as a team on a championship path.
And though the Seahawks were such a team through Thomas' glory years, they are not that anymore. It's more likely that the Seahawks will wait Thomas out in 2018 and then let him try the market in 2019.
As Seattle's defense became generationally great through the early to mid-2010s, Thomas became generationally great along with the unit—he was a first-team All-Pro every year from 2012 through 2014, and none of those selections were based on reputation.
Thomas signed a four-year, $40 million contract extension in April 2014. That deal takes him through the end of the upcoming season and presents the team with a $10.4 million cap hit in 2018. That cap hit is the fourth-largest among safeties for the 2018 season, behind those of the Chiefs' Eric Berry, Patriots' Devin McCourty and Rams' Lamarcus Joyner.
And now Thomas wants more. He's missed all the Seahawks' minicamps, including the mandatory minicamp last week, and he doesn't seem to care about the fines that could accrue—$84,435, per Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times. Those fines can be levied at the team's discretion, and it would seem to make a bad situation worse if the Seahawks choose to go through with them.
Thomas isn't a big talker, but he made his position clear on social media a week ago:
The implication is that Thomas would hold out through training camp, which would leave him open to additional fines. Clearly, this is a player who believes in his own value, and he's not afraid of a standoff. There was some talk of a Thomas trade to Dallas before the draft, but that didn't materialize, and this drama is the result of Seattle's dichotomy: How much will Thomas be worth from a positional standpoint through the next phase of his career, and does this team want to risk life without his talents on the field?
Though he played just about every snap through his first six NFL seasons, Thomas proved his worth to Seattle's defense in his absence the first time he suffered a serious injury in his professional career in Week 13 of the 2016 season. One play after Thomas suffered a broken tibia against the Carolina Panthers, Cam Newton hit speedy receiver Ted Ginn Jr. for a 55-yard touchdown pass. It was a deep post, and Ginn outran three Seattle defenders.
Ginn is the outside receiver to the right side in a tight formation with tight end Greg Olsen running deep with him. At the breaking point of the route concept, Olsen runs an out while Ginn continues with the deep post.
The Seahawks are trying to make up for Thomas' absence here by putting cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Steven Terrell in the deep third of the defense and directing middle linebacker Bobby Wagner to drop into coverage from a starting spot 17 yards off the line of scrimmage.
Olsen's route takes Sherman out of the play and leaves Terrell, Wagner and strong safety Kam Chancellor to keep up with Ginn.
Not only does this not happen, but Ginn also has the time to slow down to catch the slightly underthrown ball for a 55-yard score.
Such plays didn't generally burn Seattle's defense when Thomas was on the field. That was Carolina's only score in a 40-7 loss, but when the Seahawks didn't adjust their coverages to more two-safety looks through the rest of the season with Thomas out, their pass defense became far more vulnerable.
Thomas missed two games in 2017 with a hamstring injury, though he still played well when he was on the field. This pick-six against Deshaun Watson in Seattle's Week 8 win over the Houston Texans is a perfect example of how a veteran safety can bait a rookie quarterback into a serious mistake.
Here, the Texans are in a trips left formation with receiver DeAndre Hopkins as the inside slot man against Seattle's "2 Man" defense.
As Hopkins runs his crossing route with Sherman following him, it appears that Hopkins has the jump on Sherman.
But Thomas is baiting Watson all the way, waiting until Hopkins crosses into his area, and at the precisely correct moment, he jumps the route.
Then the only challenge is outrunning Houston's offensive players for what becomes a 78-yard touchdown.
Thomas' problem isn't necessarily diminishing value, though two straight seasons with injury complications and the fact that he's entering the wrong end of the age curve (he turned 29 in May) do make things more difficult for his future. His problem is three of the more prominent players at his position are still on the open market.
Between former 49er Eric Reid, ex-Saint Kenny Vaccaro and former Charger Tre Boston, there's enough relatively inexpensive talent on the free market to make things tough for any safety looking for a big payday.
To be more fair to Thomas' case, only Boston has shown the ability to play free safety in the deep third with anything remotely approaching Thomas' acumen and athleticism, and he's only done that for one year.
Through his first three NFL seasons, Boston was a decent deep safety for the Carolina Panthers. It was only after he signed with the Chargers in May 2017 and was placed as the deep safety in Gus Bradley's Cover 1 and Cover 3 base defenses that he showed the ability to take care of receivers down the middle and to both boundaries.
Boston signed a one-year, $900,000 contract last season, and it's unlikely the free agent will receive a lot more in 2018. The NFL has created a buyer's market at the position. Thomas has earned a bigger and better reputation, but it's unlikely he'll be able to buck the league's current trend that has the safety as an undervalued asset.