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The Earl Thomas Contract Standoff Reveals a Seahawks Roster at a Crossroads

Thomas has long been the NFL’s best safety and one of the driving forces behind Seattle’s run of dominance. So why is the franchise so reluctant to commit to him moving forward?

Earl Thomas Getty Images/Ringer illustration

June is typically the time of the NFL calendar when player discontent comes to light. Refusing to attend mandatory minicamps, which happen this week for the majority of teams, is a clear-cut way for guys to express displeasure with their current contract situations. Some of these scenarios amount to a lot of huffing and puffing from both sides, a low-stakes game of chicken that ends with no change. In some instances, though, more serious fractures are revealed, and the standoff between Earl Thomas and the Seahawks may just be one of those.

On Sunday, Thomas—who’s entering the final year of an extension signed in 2014—released a statement the way many athletes do these days: via a screenshot of his Notes app posted to Twitter. “I want to remain a Seahawk for the rest of my career,” Thomas wrote, “but I also believe based on my production over the last eight years that I’ve earned the right to have this taken care of as soon as possible.” It’s hard to argue with his logic. In terms of on-field production, the case can be made that Thomas is as responsible for Seattle’s recent run of dominance as anyone—including Russell Wilson. For most Seahawks fans, this issue isn’t complicated. General manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll should come to their senses, sign Thomas to an extension, and end this madness. But there are reasons that the Thomas drama has persisted for as long as it has, and they go beyond whether the 29-year-old remains a top-flight safety.

The first element to keep in mind is the Seahawks’ status as a franchise, both within their division and the NFC at large. The days of this group perennially contending for NFC West and conference championships appears over. Save for Thomas, Bobby Wagner, and K.J. Wright, every other major piece from Seattle’s famously destructive defenses has either left town (Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril) or emerged as a serious question mark (Kam Chancellor). The defensive depth chart is lined with unproven and unpedigreed options, especially up front. Carroll’s team finished 13th in both points allowed and Football Outsiders’ DVOA last season, and there’s no reason, based on roster talent, to expect anything better in 2018. A top-15 unit is by no means a disaster, but coupled with an offense whose ceiling is limited by an underwhelming line, the Seahawks should be merely average. They’re fine.

Fine represents a drastic shift for a team that was arguably the best in football for four straight seasons from 2012 to 2015, and it certainly isn’t going to cut it in a revamped NFC West. The Jimmy Garoppolo–led 49ers may have already surpassed the Seahawks from a talent standpoint, and the Rams were blowing out Seattle even before treating their offseason like the “You think we need one more?” scene from Ocean’s Eleven. It’s possible that Schneider and Carroll have surveyed their roster, considered Thomas’s value over the next few seasons, and decided that giving a market-setting deal to a veteran safety not far removed from hamstring and tibia injuries isn’t the best use of resources for a team that likely won’t contend for the first two years of that contract, anyway.

Without Thomas on the roster in 2019, the Seahawks would have about $66 million in cap space, according to Over the Cap. A deal that would make Thomas the league’s highest-paid safety (surpassing Eric Berry’s $13 million average annual value) would soak up roughly 20 percent of that. This is where another factor that goes beyond Thomas’s talent comes into play: Recent fluctuations in the safety market haven’t done him any favors. It’s mid-June and both Tre Boston and Eric Reid remain unsigned. (The complications with Reid’s standing in the NFL are well documented, but Boston has no such extenuating circumstances.) As the value of safeties has apparently decreased in the minds of NFL decision-makers, Thomas’s goal of securing a proper deal has become a dicier proposition. The Seahawks have to weigh whether this type of contract, for a player approaching 30 at a newly marginalized position, is worth sacrificing flexibility elsewhere as they look to retool their roster.

Safeties who can play center field the way Thomas can shouldn’t be losing value. While he may be aging, there’s plenty of evidence (remember Ed Reed?) that free safeties with his caliber of talent and instincts can stay effective well into their 30s. Realistically, a four-year deal for Thomas would have most of its guarantees stuffed into the first two seasons. If the Seahawks aren’t willing to hand him market value for what would be, in effect, his age-30 and -31 seasons, then another team should consider forking over a draft pick in a trade and doing exactly that.

NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported in late April that the Cowboys had refused to give up a second-round pick in a deal for Thomas, an indication that the Seahawks are willing to talk trade. Dallas has been repeatedly mentioned as a potential trade partner, and it’s easy to see why. Thomas hails from Orange, Texas, and hasn’t been shy about expressing his desire to play in his home state. More than that, Thomas’s former position coach, Kris Richard, is now a key member of the Cowboys’ defensive staff.

The list of possible suitors shouldn’t begin and end with Dallas, though. Houston, now facing an uncertain future with safety Andre Hal, may be another candidate. And a team like the Chargers should think long and hard about parting with a second-round pick if it means acquiring Thomas in exchange. Pairing Thomas with 2018 first-round pick Derwin James and Jahleel Addae would provide the back end of Los Angeles’s defense with a multifaceted look that could complement a ferocious pass rush to give the Chargers the best unit in the AFC. Oh, and L.A. defensive coordinator Gus Bradley may be familiar with Thomas’s work; they spent three years together when Bradley held the same position in Seattle.

This conversation will come down to what the Seahawks want out of Thomas. If their intention is to let him walk at the end of the season and use the resulting cap space to rebuild, adding another draft pick in a trade would seem to make more sense. If the hope is to retain Thomas on a more modest deal than the one he’s seeking, keeping this staring contest going would be in the franchise’s best interest. Understanding the Seahawks’ point of view isn’t difficult, and the same goes for Thomas’s.

The best safety in football for years, Thomas has watched peers like Eric Berry and Reshad Jones secure deals that dwarfed the one he agreed to four offseasons ago. Thomas knows what he can still bring to a defense, and his situation has left him looking around the league wondering what he’s missing. At this point, I can’t say I blame him.