(right) is the most respected player in the NFL's best defense. (Otto Greule, Jr./Getty Images)
"I think Earl Thomas might have one of the highest football IQs I’ve ever heard of, and he studies the game to a T. He studies it day and night, night and day. In the morning, at night – he’s probably studying it right now." -- Richard Sherman
NEW YORK CITY -- It may be true, as Richard Sherman likes to say, that he is the best cornerback in the NFL. But it's also very true that no matter what, the Seattle Seahawks cornerback isn't even the best player in his own secondary.
That honor goes to safety Earl Thomas, who has gained quite a bit of traction this season in his overwhelming goal to be the best defensive player in the NFL. It's not just those who watch him live and on tape who believe that he's well on his way -- the kudos began from his own teammates, and it didn't take too long after Thomas was selected 14th overall in the 2010 draft.
"Earl has had a big influence," linebacker Bobby Wagner said before the 2013 season began. "He talks to me every day. He's always giving me advice and telling me how he did it when he first got into the league. We're trying to be great and we feel like we can be great together. We're trying to be similar to Ed Reed and Ray Lewis."
That's a lot to ask of any duo, but Thomas is following adroitly in the footsteps of Reed and Troy Polamalu, the acknowledged best and most athletic safeties of their generation. When Thomas started out in the NFL, however, there were challenges -- his closing speed was rare and special, but he was overrunning too many plays early on. Head coach Pete Carroll had Polamalu at USC in 2001 and 2002, and he had to teach Polamalu that same fine balance.
"He was a guy that could go over the top," Carroll told me about Polamalu (and by extension, Thomas) in 2012. "He was such an extraordinary competitor and so fiery ... [these were] unbelievable competitors and so driven that they would lose their poise at times because they wanted so much to do something and make something happen. But when you corral that, that’s all you could ever ask for. It takes time to get guys to the point where they can utilize their instincts to the maximum and also stay in a manner of poise that they can make really good decisions, not just let the juice get the best of them."
Now, there are no issues. Thomas may still overrun the occasional play, but at this point, it's like an error from Omar Vizquel or Luis Aparicio, when players "miss" plays that mere mortals couldn't possibly touch. With a forbidding combination of intensity, focus, film study and belief in his own talent, Thomas has mined the ore of that talent as much as anyone could expect. Not yet 25 years old, he's become a supreme inspiration and leader for a franchise that comes into Super Bowl XLVIII as the second-youngest group (behind the 1971 Miami Dolphins) to get to this biggest of games.
“Earl is as serious a competitor as you could ever hope to be around," Carroll said two days before the Seahawks got on a plane from Renton, Wash., to New Jersey. "He is in it, and he’s on it and dialed in, and always. Off the field in taking care of himself, on the field his practice and of course his play. They have just grown, and we’ve all kind of grown together. These guys have kind of played together for a while and we benefit from that, but he’s just at the top of his game and we count on him in that fashion and he’s not going to disappoint you.”
Receiver Doug Baldwin's take is similar to that of his teammates -- Thomas is the beating heart of the NFL's best defense, and the respect paid is universal.
“He’s a phenomenal safety and I think he would tell you, as well, that a lot of his success is attributed to the guys around him," Baldwin said Wednesday. "Not only is he a phenomenal player, but he has phenomenal teammates around him that help him be as successful as he is. But, going against him every day, I call it a blessing. He’s one of those guys who’s fiery. He’s chippy. He’s passionate about the game of football in a way that I have never really seen anybody be. The way he approaches the game, the practice, the meeting rooms – it’s top-notch. It’s second to none.”
In Thomas' rookie year of 2010, he had to balance athleticism and football acumen. (Otto Greule, Jr./Getty Images)
Of course, the Seahawks almost missed out on Thomas entirely, as Seahawks general manager John Schneider told me Tuesday. Schneider had Thomas, Oklahoma State tackle Russell Okung, and Oklahoma tackle Trent Williams at the top of his board. When the Washington Redskins picked Williams fourth, Schneider understood that Okung would have to be the sixth overall pick for Seattle -- with Walter Jones out of the picture, getting a new left tackle was Job One. Then, for Seattle to take Thomas at 14 with the pick traded the year before with the Denver Broncos, two specific teams had to turn in other directions.
"We thought Earl could play corner and safety," Schneider recalled. "Cleveland was picking right behind us, and we knew that they were looking at Earl [The Browns took Florida cornerback Joe Haden instead]. Philadelphia had shown a lot of interest in Earl as well, and they traded one spot ahead of us. That's where I was kinda bummed out -- I thought they were going to take him. At that time, we didn't want to move up because we had a lot of needs -- if anything, we were going to go the other way. If he wasn't going to be there, we were going to trade down and acquire more picks. And I remember, when Philly took the Michigan guy [defensive end Brandon Graham with the 13th pick], we just had this outstanding feeling."
I asked Schneider about Thomas' intensity -- especially through the 2013 season, where he's been as dialed-in as any NFL player I can remember.
"He's really grown. He's always attacked everything and he's always loved to compete, but he's a guy who, every year, just becomes more and more of a pro. You can see him maturing right before your eyes, and he's really into it. He spends a lot of time with [quarterback] Russell [Wilson] -- they go back and forth."
It was then put to Schneider -- is Thomas the best safety in football? Seattle's GM is a man who famously avoids hyperbole.
"Well, yeah," he said after a pause and a slight smile. "I mean, I'm biased. I'm totally biased, but yeah. [Thomas' range] is huge, because we can play one-deep and move people around and do all kinds of different stuff. Pete's a defensive coach, [defensive coordinator] Dan Quinn does a fantastic job, but Earl gives you that ability to play two-high or one-high [with their safeties].
For Quinn, it's Thomas' intelligence that really pays off.
“One of the things that I regard in quarterbacks, a lot, is that mental quickness," Quinn recently said of Thomas. "They know where to go with the ball or they know what to do in a certain situation. I think as a defensive player, he’s totally put the time in to put himself into that position, based on a formation, a split or an alert. I’ve said it before, when he was first here in the offseason, I would walk down the hall and there would be a light in the DB meeting room. I generally had a sense of who was in there, probably watching tape. It was Earl. You can feel that drive from him, the constant film study, that he really wants to attack it and be as good as he can be. That’s one of the things I admire most about him. He’s fast, he has a great skill set, but really, there’s this other side of him from off the field that he wants to be great. He really works at it hard.”
And that's why, as he closes in on the biggest game of his life, Earl Thomas can roll into MetLife stadium on Sunday and play as he always does. Free, with total abandon and aggression, and with an eye on being the best player in the game at all times.
"First of all, I play from a good place," he said Wednesday, when asked how he would approach the Super Bowl. "I'm always just happy for the opportunity, so I'm going to be fired up. I'm going to be excited. I'm going to be ready to show the world about me, individually, and be the best teammate while I'm doing it.
"It's going to be fun on this stage. You dream about it. I'm excited, man. Big plays to come."
There have been enough already in Earl Thomas' short career to remove any doubt.
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