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Why trading Earl Thomas right now makes so little sense

Talent would be hard to replace; value would be hard to get

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys
not a metaphor
Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone knows Earl Thomas makes big plays. Game-altering, game-saving, game-winning plays. Plays that eliminate defeat from the list of options.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Pushing David Johnson out at the one-foot-line of a tied game in overtime is somehow not the best, or second-best play of Thomas’ career. Because of the Ram Chops.

Still, any football play made before January 29, 2018 is in the past. The Seattle Seahawks have already paid for the twin chops at the pylon, the innumerable missile tackles, the key pick sixes, and the impossibly large range of their free safety. Contracts should be about the future, about judging worth moving forward and paying acceptably for that worth. Past play is valuable only as a rough predictor of future play.

In my view, with all things considered, Seattle should keep Thomas, extending him as they have done with other elite Seahawks before him, one year ahead of the contract’s conclusion. There are six good reasons.

A) He’s essential to the whole operation.

Without Thomas, the Seahawks defense has half a season of data to examine. 181 points in eight games means an average of 22.6 allowed; combine that with a 4-4 record in said games, and you have a sample of perfectly pedestrian results.

Sure, in 2017, the Seahawks allowed just 39 points total in the two games he missed. Maybe that has something to do with the perceived upgrade from backup Steven Terrell to backup Bradley McDougald. However, Seattle lost an extremely winnable home game when two deep completions by Kirk Cousins in the final two minutes swung the result the wrong way. That’s a time the presence of Thomas could have been felt.

The Seahawks gave up 30 points three times in six games after Thomas broke his leg two seasons ago. Previous to the injury, it had taken them 22 games to give up 30 points thrice.

The Seahawks are not good when Thomas misses time. The gap between the Earl-powered Seahawks and the Earl-less Seahawks is not something, say, a first-round pick and another decent player can likely bridge.

B) He’s not old, yet.

Thomas turns 29 in May. Of course, an extension would then begin in his age 30 season, as he is under contract already for this coming season.

How old is 30, for a safety? Maybe it’s at the edge of the cliff. Probably it’s at the start of decline.

There’s a disclaimer to be made here about Approximate Value, but no matter how much distrust is warranted, there’s also a story to be told about what happens at age 30, to a typical safety. Peaks are identified around ages 26-28, and the drop-off is significant after 30. Question for later: is Earl Thomas a typical safety?

Graph Two offers very little reassurance.

The disclaimer here is even bigger than with AV — this graph’s based on PFF player grades. Which are terrible individually, but might not be so terrible if the whole league is included, because outliers are thus neutralized. (That’s what I’m telling myself, at least.)

If you’re employing a 32-33 year-old free safety, it’s probably wise to expect some level of decline. But what level of play would the Seahawks get from an Earl Thomas in his age 30, 31 and 32 seasons? How you choose to answer that reframes our whole discussion. Presuming he’s healthy, you know it will be of high quality. Declining Thomas is still a great deal better that every other personnel option out there, available through either free agency or the draft. I elect to believe he would age more gracefully than most safeties; I elect to trust his instincts and smarts will compensate for any physical deterioration. Not forever! Just long enough to make a contract extension worth it. I wouldn’t take that chance with every player, but Thomas seems like a better bet than most.

An extension structured with little dead money after his age 32 season would offer security to the player and... safety to the team.

C) It would be hard to recoup value in a trade.

Unless Thomas’ replacement is already on the roster (dubious), the Seahawks sans ET would need to draft another free safety. In order to get one with some talent, picking in the top half of the first round is necessary.

Then, of course, you’re still looking at a year, or years, of development before that draft pick’s play maybe begins to approach what Thomas brought to the table. Even Earl Thomas of 2010 was not the player we saw in 2012-2015. So even if you somehow draft another Earl, he’s not Earl yet, not for a couple seasons probably.

Oh and you’d better hope that pick doesn’t bust.

So maybe we acknowledge that replacing Thomas with a Thomas clone isn’t going to happen. Because Hall of Fame talent doesn’t fall to you every draft. But replacing Thomas with a slightly worse version of him also isn’t easy. Between Kenny Easley and Thomas, the Seahawks went through such names as Brian Russell, Lawyer Milloy, Ken Hamlin, Michael Boulware, Marquand Manuel, Jordan Babineaux... it’s a list that showcases various levels of performance and brings back various levels of memories. It contains no player comparable to ET.

Thomas is a rare player. The breakdown in communication and understanding and expectations between him and the Seattle front office would have to be of an equally rare kind to prevent a deal being reached.

And the relationship seems far from strained, based on Thomas’ actual words during Pro Bowl weekend.

“I want to finish my career there. I definitely don’t see myself going out there not signed. But I’m going to continue to work my butt off and enjoy this process at the Pro Bowl.

“As far as my future in Seattle, I think if they want me, you know, money talks. We’ll get something accomplished. Other than that, I’m just taking it one day at a time.”

He wants to get paid. His last extension made him the highest-paid safety; now he’s sixth in the league and second on his own team. He wants to play here. He wants to talk. He wants to play hardball. Thomas is not saying “the Seahawks don’t respect me” or “the lines of communication are broken” or “I’m not discussing this in the media” or even “please trade me John.” He may think one or more of those at once, but he’s not saying anything close to them.

Complicating things for a trade anyway is that Thomas has only one year left on his deal. His trade value is low unless the trade partner has assurances they’ll be able to sign him to an extension that satisfies both parties. Presumably the Cowboys, or Colts, or Bengals, or whoever, would only initiate trade talks because they have the draft capital to make it happen and the cap space plus willingness to sign him immediately. But the contract situation is another hurdle to clear regardless.

D) The holdout threat is a negotiating tool, not a request to get out

It would be financially irresponsible of Thomas, and of his agent, to negotiate poorly. While a holdout threat is unsavory, it also isn’t an actual holdout.

We’re also far away from the typical time frame during which the Seahawks extend their core players. Brady Henderson of 710 ESPN details it nicely:

Thomas and Richard Sherman got theirs in late April and early May, respectively. Chancellor’s first extension was in late April and his latest one wasn’t until the start of training camp, about when Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner got theirs. Seattle extended Doug Baldwin in late May and then in late June. So the fact that there has been no movement yet on a new deal for Thomas could simply be a reflection of how it’s usually the team’s third order of offseason business, behind free agency and preparations for the draft.

Thomas and his negotiating team have made it very clear they’re serious by talking holdout this early. But the Seahawks have made no indication that they are any less serious. They’re on their usual offseason path, for all we know.

E) The Cowboys locker-room visit and the Kris Richard connection are not as big of deals as the larger media would like you to believe.

Earl was just being Earl. It’s what he does. He is what he is and does what he does, while saying what he says, before and after he goes out onto the field and plays like he plays. He operates on a different plane than the rest of his peers and the rest of us.

His timing with the locker room visit was a little off. Well, that’s because sometimes Earl Thomas is a little off. Almost always it’s in a really good way.

Richard, meanwhile, may not want to start building his defense with a soon-to-be-30-year-old defensive back who has already defined coaches’ careers — including Richard’s own path. He might just as well want a clean break from Seattle ties.

But those angles don’t gather clicks, now do they?

F) Earl Thomas is exactly the type of player the Seahawks typically pay and keep.

The Seahawks tend to play their elite players. Two pass-catchers made $10 million-plus last year; Wilson received a market-value extension based on him being top 10 at his position; Kam Chancellor is the latest high performer to be rewarded handsomely.

Part of the salary cap cul-de-sac John Schneider drove himself into in 2017 came from paying upper-middle class money for middle-class production (or worse). Jeremy Lane came with a 7.25 million hit; 3.33 million in dead money for Jermaine Kearse and Ahtyba Rubin adds up; even 3.2 million for Jon Ryan turned out to be something of an overpay for his punting prowess this season.

However, Seattle’s always been about paying good money to players who deserve it. It’s easy to argue that from an essentialness standpoint, nobody on the Seahawks deserves to get paid more than Earl deserves it.

Besides: A raise for 2019 (and you’re looking at something of a $3 million annual bump to get him even with Eric Berry) could actually make more cap room in the immediate future. (Something of which the Seahawks could use a little more.) If you don’t pay Thomas it’s largely because of doubt concerning his future. But Earl is one of the people who remains hungry, is one of your emotional leaders. There’s no video evidence to the contrary. There is only evidence in support.

When Thomas made his unsettling visit to Jason Garrett and the rest of the Cowboys, it was after a game in which the defense had allowed four field goals and no touchdowns. When Thomas is wearing the Seahawks’ colors, there is no questioning his effort. There would be little reason to begin doubting it once an extension arrived.

However, a quick counterpoint

There are not six reasons to trade him. There are three compelling ones, though they each come cloaked.

  • If Pete Carroll is for some reason done with the single-high safety experiment, then Thomas’ value to the Seahawks plummets. A scheme change, carried out in concert with a staff turnover, would raise Thomas’ expendability.
  • If Thomas doesn’t want to be here anymore than my entire argument above is rendered moot. That’s the great unknown. Is Earl done here, from his perspective?
  • If the offer for his services is of the “can’t-refuse-this” variety, then the whole equation needs to be redrawn. Personally, I’m not moving Thomas for anything less than two firsts, and not low firsts either, and even then only if he insists on a move. I think too highly of his importance to the W-L record. It’s the same reason I wouldn’t deal Baldwin, Wagner or Wilson. There are certain players whose absence sends you downward in the standings, farther of contention, and the Seahawks currently have four of them. You do everything you can to keep all four of them while they can still ball.

Now the unknowns have been listed, acknowledged, had their due paid. But without the ability to get inside Earl’s wonderful, unpredictable, crazy, unique head, or Pete’s psyche, or to foresee anyone’s health long-term, or to anticipate what offer a desperate general manager might make, the knowns we’re forced to fall back on are logic, dollars, past performance, and talent. All of those point to an extension, not a trade.