By Danny O’Neil
He is the shortest member of a secondary known for its size, and one of the softest spoken members of a defense that has a reputation for its swagger.
But overlooking safety Earl Thomas is impossible. At least it is to anyone paying attention because he just might be the best football player on this Seahawks team that’s as loaded with talent as it is with expectations.
That’s right: the best player.
Because as good as cornerback Richard Sherman played last season and as much of a cornerstone as Russell Okung is at left tackle and as important as Russell Wilson will be as Seattle’s quarterback of the future, Thomas is the member of this team who is closest to being considered the best at his position in the entire league.
Yep, he’s that good.
“There’s no end to the potential Earl has,” coach Pete Carroll said, “because he’s so fast and he’s so tough, but more than that, he’s just so driven to be great. He’s just driven to be a great player.”
And in that way, it’s Thomas who best embodies the situation in which Seattle’s entire team finds itself entering this season.
There’s no doubt about the talent. Not for Thomas, who has been voted to the Pro Bowl as a starter in each of the past two seasons, and not for the Seahawks, whose roster is considered one of the most stacked in this league. Now, the question is about the ceiling because being considered among the best is different from being anointed the best.
But make no doubt, Thomas is in that conversation as a previous generation of playmakers enter the twilight of their careers. Guys like Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed, who’s now with Houston, are past 30, leaving Thomas, the Chiefs’ Eric Berry and the Bucs’ Dashon Goldson as the vanguard of generation next.
Thomas isn’t at the top of the heap. Not after a year in which he dropped more interceptions than he made, but in three years he has never missed a game and has proven himself as one of the hardest-practicing players his coaches have ever seen. And his interception totals don’t show the fact that he put himself in position to make so many plays, and if he starts hanging on to the ball, we could start talking about him as one of this league’s game-breaking players.
After all, he just turned 24, entering the prime of his career at a position that has produced three of the league’s past nine defensive players of the year.
“He’s really just kind of hitting it now,” Carroll said. “He’s just getting going.”
Carroll has got a little bit of history coaching that position, whether it was Joey Browner with the Vikings, a young Lawyer Milloy – who made his Pro Bowl breakthrough while Carroll was in charge of the Patriots – or Polamalu at USC.
“Earl is as good as any of the guys I’ve ever coached,” Carroll said.
Now, location matters as much in football as it does in real estate, and a safety isn’t considered as valuable as a left tackle, a position that Okung occupies so capably. And it’s certainly not on par with quarterback.
But if we forget about the positional pecking order and just talk about on-field performance, Thomas right now is the best Seahawk at his craft, a fact that speaks as much to his development as it does to the team’s scouting.
Thomas was the second player drafted by general manager John Schneider, someone Seattle didn’t think it would ever get the chance to choose with the 14th overall pick in 2010. Not after the Philadelphia Eagles vaulted up the draft order, trading into the 13th spot.
Schneider was so certain the Eagles were selecting Thomas to replace the departing Brian Dawkins that Schneider had a trade worked out to move back from No. 14 if Thomas were gone. But after the Eagles chose pass rusher Brandon Graham out of Michigan, the Seahawks picked Thomas, one of the youngest players in the draft and someone who had played just two seasons at Texas.
Three years later, that 5-foot-10 safety stands out not only amid one of this league’s most talented teams, but all of pro football.