In the NFL, Super Bowl windows are as fleeting as passing windows: The moment there is an opening, it’s already starting to close. Dallas, just one year removed from earning the no. 1 overall seed in the NFC, is still firmly in the center of its Super Bowl window, but Philly’s Crisco-slathered coronation and a rapidly improving NFC (Dallas has the seventh-best Super Bowl odds among NFC teams) has already made the Cowboys a relative afterthought. For all of the talk about Dallas needing to find a receiver to replace Dez Bryant, the biggest impediment to the Cowboys’ window is in the secondary. The have a giant hole at free safety, and filling it would go a long way to improving their Super Bowl odds. Luckily, they already have a volunteer.
In an article for The Players’ Tribune titled, “Here’s What’s Actually Going On,” Seattle’s Earl Thomas, 29, the best safety of his generation who is entering the final year of his contract, laid out why he hasn’t shown up to Seahawks training camp as he seeks either an extension or a trade from the franchise.
“If you’re risking your body to deliver all of this value to an organization, then you deserve some sort of assurance that the organization will take care of you if you get hurt,” he wrote. “It’s that simple. This isn’t new, and this isn’t complicated. … I want to be able to give my everything, on every play, without any doubt in my mind.”
The Seahawks have seen their defensive identity implode after releasing cornerback Richard Sherman and trading defensive end Michael Bennett, and the retirements of safety Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril this offseason. And now that the rift with Thomas is so publicly laid out, it’s harder to see why the Seahawks wouldn’t deal Thomas before the season begins to get something before he leaves in free agency in 2019. If Seattle does trade Thomas, the Cowboys are the clubhouse leader to land him by a country mile. Thomas, who is from Texas and played football for the Texas Longhorns in college, is a huge Cowboys fan and has said that he wants to play for the Cowboys. He didn’t do it in some elaborate media leak; he walked into the Cowboys locker room after a game in December and told Dallas head coach Jason Garrett “come get me.” Speaking to reporters after, Thomas stood by his words.
The price has been the sticking point. During the NFL draft, the pick-strapped Seahawks were reportedly seeking first- and third-round picks for Thomas, but after that failed to gain traction, they lowered their price to a Dallas second-round pick. The Cowboys reportedly offered their third-rounder while they were on the clock at 81st overall but didn’t hear back. Yet the failure to reach a deal hasn’t put a damper on the rumor mill. Last month, Avril said that Thomas’s affinity for the Cowboys is real.
.@cliffavril on @Earl_Thomas saying he wants to be in Dallas: Everyone in (the Seahawks) locker room knows Earl loves the Cowboys. He'd leave immediately after work just to catch them play MNF. We didn't take it too serious. Whatever team he dresses up for he's gonna do his thing pic.twitter.com/5lc5LzKSND— SiriusXM NFL Radio (@SiriusXMNFL) July 3, 2018
On Wednesday, one day before Thomas’s Players’ Tribune article, ESPN reporter Todd Archer listed Thomas becoming a Cowboy as his “bold prediction,” and Nick Eaton of the official Cowboys website said, “I’m borderline positive it’s going to happen.”
The Cowboys are in the same dilemma the Lakers faced with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. When both players expressed an interest in playing basketball for L.A., the Lakers front office had to decide whether to trade valuable assets to guarantee getting a superstar or to wait for those players to come in free agency.
The Lakers declined to trade for George and (so far) Leonard, but Dallas’s situation isn’t quite the same. An NBA superstar has far more impact on a team’s championship odds than even a generationally great safety like Thomas, plus basketball players in their late 20s age like fine wine, while defensive backs in that age range age like a Solo Cup of Franzia left out overnight. But that ticking clock is exactly why the Cowboys should rush to make a deal, rather than wait a year.
Bryant and Jason Witten may be gone, but the core players at the center of Dallas’s 13-3 team—the road-grading offensive line, star running back Ezekiel Elliott, and defensive centerpiece Sean Lee—are all locked up into the 2020s. That contractual magic trick is possible because Dak Prescott is set for a $725,848 cap hit in 2018 and $815,849 in 2019 while playing the most important position for the most popular team in America’s most popular sport (rookie contracts!).
The team should push some more chips into the center of the table while Dak represents such a shockingly great value. When Prescott needs a new deal for 2020 (or if the Cowboys look elsewhere for a quarterback), a sharp market correction will give Dallas $20-ish million fewer each year to spend on their defense and receiving corps (and special teams, lol). Dallas can improve the margins of the roster more easily now than in 2020. No margin needs more improvement than the team’s 25th-ranked defense by DVOA.
Dallas free safety Byron Jones led the Cowboys defense in snaps in 2017, but was the 58th-best safety (65.3) according to Pro Football Focus’s grading and is moving back to cornerback this year. Thomas was the fifth-best safety, 25 points ahead of Jones and less than two points off the top-graded Harrison Smith. Even as the Seahawks defense collapsed around him, Thomas remained Seattle’s rock. He still has the preternatural range, instincts, and closing speed that made him the centerpiece of the Legion of Boom, covering the widest range of space and taking on the hardest assignments. In Dallas, he’d be a serious improvement over Jones, take some of the overwhelming defensive burden off of Sean Lee’s shoulders, and make life easier for young cornerbacks Anthony Brown, Chidobe Awuzie, and Jourdan Lewis. Even if Thomas declines slightly, he’s a massive upgrade.
Of course, there are multiple ways that trading a second-rounder for Thomas could backfire. He could leave in free agency, as Sammy Watkins did in March when the Rams dealt a second-rounder for him last year. If Thomas signs an extension, a severe dip in his play—either from injury or from entering his 30s—could make him a salary albatross. Even if he keeps up his excellent play, fans will wonder why the team sacrificed a second-round pick for a player who did everything to let Dallas know he was coming except hold a boombox outside the Star while throwing rocks at Jerry Jones’s window. In a vacuum, Thomas in need of an expensive extension isn’t worth a second-round pick.
But the Cowboys aren’t in a vacuum. They were a Super Bowl favorite in 2016, but the team has gone in the wrong direction since, and an elite core can decline at a moment’s notice (just look at Seattle). A second-round pick could very well become a great player, but a team as talented as the Cowboys doesn’t have time to think more than two years down the line. A hypothetical second-rounder who will be a rookie in 2019 (and, uh, in college this year) is not going to contribute a fraction of what the best safety of the last decade can do—even at the tail end of his prime.