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Throughout the next several weeks, we’ll be assessing the market on some of the best free agents set to come available on March 14. Beyond scheme fit, these decisions will be impacted by available finances, team thoughts on current draft prospects and perception of value vs. actual value. We’ll try and parse through those ideas here.

Check out Le’Veon Bell, Jadeveon Clowney, Demarcus Lawrence and others at The MMQB.

Player: Earl Thomas
Age: 29 (turning 30 on May 7)
Position: Safety
2018 Salary: $10.4 million
2018 Statistics: 22 tackles, five passes defensed, three interceptions. Thomas played in just four games last year after fracturing his lower leg in early October. You probably remember him being carted off.

Why he’s a top-tier free agent: Perhaps the most critical piece of Seattle’s legendary pass defense during the Legion of Boom era, Earl Thomas has been the consummate centerfielder in the NFL over the past nine seasons. The three-time All-Pro safety can still snap on a play instantaneously, and, like several other members of that elite safety class from the 2010 draft, he often seems to know where the ball is going before the play even starts. As we’ve gotten closer to the opening of free agency, those questioning Thomas’s age should watch the four games he did play in 2018 and consider that this was a healthy amount of time to rehabilitate a leg injury of that magnitude. Teams may be wary of allocating that much money to someone in their secondary who isn’t pressed up in the face of a top-flight wide receiver, but with half the league starting quarterbacks either just slightly above replacement level line, or rookies and second-year players who are still prone to being fooled with Thomas’s coverage style, he’s worth every penny. From his perch, Thomas can impact games in ways that few defensive players in the NFL can. 

Risks involved: He’s turning 30 in the middle of voluntary camp and, as our own Andy Benoit noted, there are times when that age represents a decline point for safeties who aren’t box players. And while a large portion of the NFL runs a version of that old Legion of Boom defense, or is, at the least, heavily influenced by it, it’s difficult to find a ton of players who shined outside the original orchestra. While that’s also due to the fact that most of them did not hit true free agency until past their primes—and, in all honesty, Richard Sherman did have a pretty good season in San Francisco last year—Thomas is a different player. Yes, he’ll need to find a unit he can take over. He’ll need to be the nerve center. But how many players in this free agency class will provide more of a return on investment?

Market prospects: I think Thomas has a destination in mind and I think that team also has Thomas in mind, so long as they get one other major piece worked out. It’s interesting to think that Jerry Jones could walk away with two of the best five free agents on the market (counting Demarcus Lawrence). Securing Thomas and placing him behind a defensive backfield that includes Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie would make Dallas the early favorites in the NFC East (and, if at all possible, increase the massive amount of pressure already on Jason Garrett’s shoulders to succeed). Even if Dallas falls though, this shouldn’t be a complicated free agency for Thomas, even if he decides to take a veteran summer and sign a bit closer to training camp.

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Potential destinations: Cowboys, 49ers, Chiefs

Contract comps: 

I’ve included the same comps from our Landon Collins piece, but keep in mind that Collins and Thomas could impact one another. Though they don’t play the same position, the safety market could end up leapfrogging itself—at least in terms of the APY amount, since Collins would probably get a longer deal—thanks to a pair of very talented defenders both hitting the market at once.

Eric Berry, Chiefs: Six years, $78 million / $13 million APY / $40 million, total guarantee

Reshad Jones, Dolphins: Five years, $60 million / $12 million APY / $33 million, total guarantee

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