NFL Insiders: 'Shock' over Ravens' Earl Thomas Cut Stalls Signing with New TeamAugust 26, 2020
When the Ravens released seven-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas on Sunday, many coaches and evaluators around the league were surprised and confused. Not that Thomas punched a fellow safety during practice, but that a team with a highly respected veteran head coach and a defined culture hadn't been able to minimize the impact of Thomas' behavior in his season-plus with the team.
"If a guy like Harbaugh couldn't salvage him, that is odd," said a veteran evaluator. "Because Harbaugh and the Ravens aren't afraid of passionate, edgy guys."
"That Baltimore thing is a little alarming because of the strong culture they have there," a personnel executive said.
Thomas isn't radioactive everywhere yet, but based on Bleacher Report's conversations with sources around the league, teams are jarred by Thomas' abrupt release from Baltimore and aren't quite sure what to make of it.
There are conflicting reports on whether the Cowboys are interested in Thomas. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, they are not expected to pursue him. However, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones also said on 105.3 the Fan that Rapoport "doesn't know what he's talking about."
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, who previously coached Thomas as Seattle's defensive coordinator, told reporters Tuesday that the Falcons aren't interested. The head coaches for two other teams linked to Thomas, the 49ers and Texans, also denied any interest. (According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the free-agent safety teams are reaching out to is another former Raven, Tony Jefferson, who is nearly recovered from an ACL injury.)
Several sources brought up what happened in the offseason between Thomas and his wife as another factor that could concern teams evaluating the safety. According to court documents obtained by TMZ, Thomas' wife, Nina Thomas, was arrested in April after she said she pointed a gun at Earl's head during an argument. Nina said she confronted her husband at an Airbnb because she thought he was cheating on her.
Thomas has already been a free agent for three days. The veteran evaluator cited above expects a team to sign Thomas eventually, but only "after he goes on an apology tour," he said. "The coaching fraternity is scratching their heads with the Ravens letting him walk out of the building. Earl will have to wait for that initial shock to wear off."
Thomas' agent did not return a call for comment.
Another factor in how quickly Thomas might sign is coronavirus protocol. It takes three days to get a free agent in the building, because a player has to test negative three consecutive times for entry to a team facility. With the limitations to the offseason and a shortened training camp, many teams are still sorting out their current rosters. As the days go by, Thomas may end up having to agree to something short of his ideal contract.
As teams around the league weigh the pros and cons, they'll dig into Thomas' behavior with the Ravens and Seahawks, and even earlier.
Bleacher Report talked to multiple scouts who scouted Thomas at Texas when he declared for the 2010 draft, and none recalled Thomas having any pressing character issues coming into the pros.
NBC Sports columnist Peter King reported that in Baltimore, Thomas was not well-liked by his teammates, he had a pattern of being late, he missed at least one walk-through with no valid excuse, and he made mistakes in practice because he was unprepared. King reported that Ravens players backed Chuck Clark, the teammate Thomas punched during an argument over a missed assignment, instead of Thomas. The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec reported that several veteran players told Harbaugh the team would be better off without Thomas.
One source close to the Seahawks said he wasn't aware of Thomas having any of those issues in Seattle, from 2010 to '18. The source said Thomas has always been a unique personality, but he was well-liked by his Seattle teammates, and the Legion of Boom players were a very tight-knit group that spent a lot of time together off the field. "He is just wired differently," the source said. "There is almost an intensity about him."
49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, who was close to Thomas in that Legion of Boom secondary, tweeted his support, saying, "It's really sad how things have played out for a man who is like a brother to me." Texans QB Deshaun Watson and Rams CB Jalen Ramsey also tweeted their support for Thomas, with whom they share the same agent.
An agent who represented a former Seattle teammate of Thomas' said that Thomas changed after the Seahawks lost Super Bowl XLIX in February 2015. The agent said Thomas was known for being entitled, and he didn't study the playbook enough, so fellow safety Kam Chancellor bailed him out frequently on the field. The previous offseason, Seattle had made Thomas the highest-paid safety in the league.
With the amount of digging that NFL teams do in the free-agent process, the Ravens likely had all the background on Thomas and knew what they were getting. The last visual of Thomas in a Seahawks jersey was a telling sign. He raised a middle finger to head coach Pete Carroll while riding the injury cart off the field with a broken leg that ended his 2018 season. Thomas had been in a contract dispute with the team since the previous offseason, and he told ESPN he didn't think Carroll's concern about his injury was honest.
Carroll encourages his players to be themselves and allows more freedom for that than most NFL head coaches. Back in the Legion of Boom days, when the Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII and then returned to the title game the following season, Carroll cultivated "a brash, renegade atmosphere," in the words of the personnel evaluator who found the Baltimore situation "a little alarming."
Another veteran evaluator brought up former Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett as an example of a Seahawks LOB-era player who struggled after leaving Seattle to play for a new team. Bennett played for the Eagles, Patriots and Cowboys in 2018 and '19, and was suspended for one week by New England last season for what he called "a philosophical disagreement" with his position coach. The evaluator raised an interesting question: Does Seattle's rare ability to handle multiple alpha personalities make it difficult for those players to adjust when they move on to a different team structure and culture?
Sherman's career would prove otherwise, as he is an example of a big personality who found success after leaving Seattle for San Francisco as a free agent in 2018.
Defensive end Bruce Irvin started his career as a Seahawk in 2012 and then left to play four seasons with the Raiders, Falcons and Panthers. Now he's back in Seattle, and in a recent media availability, Irvin told reporters he had no idea how different it was in Seattle until he left.
"This is a very special place, and it took me to leave here to really notice that," he said. "I was a young guy who when I was here, I'd say, 'S--t, I wonder how it is on another team.' And [VP of player engagement Maurice] Kelly would always tell me, 'The grass isn't always greener,' and when I got to other teams, I really realized that it is really a good situation over here and guys hold each other accountable."
"I think there is something to that," the source close to Seattle said. "Earl had this alpha personality anyway and then team success, the money that comes with that, they all got paid at the top of their positions, so how do you ever put that away? How do you suppress that part of yourself to fit in?"
This moment is a turning point for Thomas. At 31 years old and entering his 11th season, he's nearing the end of his career. Thomas struggled to adjust to a new Ravens defense (just ask Derrick Henry or Nick Chubb) and only had two interceptions, but he was still voted to the Pro Bowl, and he's still an elite player who can improve the backfield of many defenses in the league.
Wherever Thomas winds up signing next and however he acts with his new team will define his post-LOB legacy, which for now is defined by two actions: a middle finger and a punch.
Kalyn Kahler covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow her on Twitter for NFL musings and weird quarantine thoughts: @KalynKahler.