Seahawks Strike Gold With Thomas Extension
by Corbin Smith
May 06, 2014 1:41 PM EDT
It’s tough to envision a four-year, $40 million dollar extension being a “bargain,” but in the case of All-Pro defender Earl Thomas, the Seattle Seahawks managed to negotiate the perfect deal to keep the league’s premier safety.
Thomas entered the NFL shortly before his 21st birthday after being nabbed by the Seahawks with the 14th pick of the 2010 Draft, but his youth didn’t stop him from emerging as an immediate contributor. The Seahawks instantly threw him into the starting lineup, and he quickly blossomed into an All-Pro talent by his third season. Ever since arriving in the Pacific Northwest, he’s been a high-impact player who has allowed Seattle’s defense to thrive and has become the voice of the NFL's best defense.
On the surface, paying $10 million a year to a player who doesn’t play quarterback seems a bit pricey, but film shows that Thomas may be the league’s most indispensable player who doesn’t play under center. Seattle’s entire defensive strategy is built on Thomas’ instinctual capabilities and his nose for finding the football. Most would believe that Seattle’s defensive dominance the past few years has been built around a complex defensive scheme, but that statement couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Seattle gives a wide variety of looks defensively, but the base look is nothing more than a simple “Cover 3” scheme with minor variations. Ultimately, Thomas serves as the “defensive quarterback” for Dan Quinn’s vicious unit, patrolling a large portion of the field on his own and thus allowing corners Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell to play physical press coverage at the line of scrimmage. His presence also helps Seattle successfully stop the run by allowing Quinn to move strong safety Kam Chancellor up towards the line of scrimmage. Chancellor can still drop into coverage if needed, or he can be deployed like an extra linebacker who controls a gap in the run game and occasionally blitzes. Few teams have this luxury, and Seattle takes full advantage of it.
Thomas' insane skills can be seen on display on a weekly basis, but one play that stood out from the 2013 season came against the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday Night Football. The Cardinals had started to move the football late in the first quarter and had a first down approaching midfield. Former Seahawk corner Brandon Browner lined up in press coverage across from star receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who intended to run a vertical route down the sideline. Thomas stayed back as the last line of defense deep in Seattle's secondary, while the rest of the defense lined up near the line of scrimmage. Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer saw one-on-one coverage against Fitzgerald and decided to take a shot deep down the sideline, but he underthrew the pass and Thomas came flying out of nowhere to snag a highlight reel interception.
When the San Francisco 49ers came to Seattle during Week 2 last season, they quickly marched down field and got inside the Seahawks' 10-yard line. Quinn trusted his star safety enough to have him isolated on an island by himself in the end zone, while Chancellor moved up close to the line of scrimmage and defended tight end Vernon Davis in man coverage. Chancellor hit Davis off the snap, and when Colin Kaepernick tried to find him at the goal line, corner Walter Thurmond flew in and deflected the pass. The football launched into the air, and the opportunistic Thomas immediately hauled it in for a critical turnover, quickly ending San Francisco's drive. Seattle has been a turnover-creating machine since Pete Carroll came to town, and its no coincidence those numbers skyrocketed with Thomas running the defense.
His ability to make up ground doesn't only pay dividends in the Cover 3 look, as he also showed his elite instincts and athleticism hunting down a screen play against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Quinn called for a "2 Man Under" look, where two safeties stay back deep in coverage and the rest of the defense plays a man-to-man scheme. Indianapolis tried to run a tailback screen to Donald Brown out of shotgun, but Thomas wasn't fooled. Once he figured out what the Colts planned to do, he sprinted close to 20 yards to locate Brown and tackle him for no gain on the play.
Very few players have the speed to make up that much ground in an instant, but Thomas makes plays like this one on a consistent basis and he does it with ease. It's sequences like this one that allow Seattle to impose its will on opposing offenses utilizing fairly basic defensive schemes like the Cover 3 and 2 Man Under. This does not mean that these schemes have worked to perfection all the time, however.
Offensive coordinators know that, like all defensive schemes, the Cover 3 has vulnerabilities, most notably against vertical routes. Indianapolis found success against Seattle this past season by sending multiple receivers on “go” routes, forcing Thomas to decide which route he would provide support for in coverage. With at least two targets stretching the field, the opposing team will get a 1-on-1 opportunity, as even the incredible Thomas can’t cover both routes.
Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton broke free on multiple occasions for big plays, including this 73 yard touchdown strike, and that ultimately cost Seattle in a Week 5 loss at Indianapolis. Sherman actually ended up getting burned on this play, and when Thomas wasn’t able to get back in coverage for support, Hilton juked his way into the endzone. The Colts were able to exploit the Cover 3 look throughout the afternoon, showing a small blueprint for attacking Seattle’s typically dominant pass defense.
It sounds easy, but for the most part, teams still struggled to move the football through the air when they faced the Seahawks. Even though opponents understand what Quinn’s defense is doing schematically, the talent at all three levels of Seattle’s unit makes it extremely difficult to convert on deep pass plays. And having a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Thomas handling center field duties allows for this dominance to happen. His rare blend of speed, athleticism, and instincts remain critical to everything Seattle does defensively, as he shuts down a large portion of the field on his own and makes life for everyone else on the Seahawks’ defense much more simplified.
The scariest part for opponents to absorb is that Thomas will only turn 25 this month. He’s going to continue to improve as he gains more experience, and he’s entering the prime of his career. With that being considered, investing $10 million per year suddenly seems like a steal for John Schneider and Pete Carroll, and Thomas will have an opportunity to cash in for one more big pay day when he turns 29. It's a win-win for both sides.
Sherman is the best corner in the game, and he will be paid accordingly. But the Seahawks understood which player should be prioritized first, and it’s not a difficult choice. There isn’t a player in the league today who directly influences the performance of others like Thomas does, and at the end of the day, the best player on the league's best defense needed to receive a lucrative contract extension first.