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Originally published Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 6:30 PM

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Earl Thomas: The case for NFL defensive player of the year

Seahawks safety Earl Thomas has great range, speed and toughness and uses those assets to force opponents out of their game.


Seattle Times staff reporter

By the numbers

5th in NFL

Thomas’ five interceptions this season tied him for fifth in the league.

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The case for Earl Thomas as the NFL’s defensive player of the year can be made through stats or highlights, but there’s a more fundamental argument.

He is the most valuable player on the league’s best defense.

“Just ask them this: Rate the players on how hard they would be to replace,” former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. “See where Earl comes up. If you told (defensive coordinator) Dan Quinn, what one guy could you ill afford to lose, it’s Earl Thomas.”

Thomas’ biggest impact often goes unnoticed. Chris Maragos, Thomas’ backup the past three years, calls him a fire extinguisher. But Maragos adds that Thomas puts out many fires before they ever happen.

“One of the things you don’t see but that exists is the factor he plays just being back there,” coach Pete Carroll said. “Think about the last couple years when you’ve seen a post route, which is one of the most common routes in football, thrown at our defense for a big play. Doesn’t happen. I can barely remember any.”

Angelo put it another way.

“You don’t see guys like Earl Thomas,” he said. “He has great range, speed, toughness. What’s not to like? You wish he were a little bigger, but that’s immaterial given his strengths. When you have a center fielder who can play like that, he can cover a lot of weaknesses of other players. Not just in the secondary but in the whole defense.”

Thomas is second on the Seahawks with 105 tackles, two forced fumbles and five interceptions. The Seahawks gave up the fewest plays of 20-plus yards in the NFL, and Carroll said Thomas is a big reason for that.

He has always been one of Seattle’s fastest players, but this year he was so in tune with how offenses were trying to attack the Seahawks that he was rarely out of position. He not only takes away plays in the middle of the field, but he’s also fast enough to cover mistakes near the sideline.

“You want to have as much speed at the safety position as you can,” Angelo said, “but usually you compromise tackling and instincts for it. With a guy like Earl Thomas, you have a rare combination of athleticism, speed, toughness — with awareness. To me, that’s the hardest position to find, a safety with that skill set.”

In the third quarter of Seattle’s nail-biter at St. Louis, Thomas showed off his arsenal. Seeing open field, Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens took off running. Thomas and Clemens were separated by 23 yards, but Thomas came flying forward to deliver a solid shot and stop Clemens short of a first down.

“I think he’s the MVP of the league on defense, if you ask me,” former NFL coach Jon Gruden gushed on “Monday Night Football” after the play. “I don’t see safeties play like this kid.”

Thomas’ hit left a lasting impression for two reasons. First, Clemens had a welt on his forehead when he talked to reporters after the game. But more important is this: Early in the fourth quarter, with the ball on Seattle’s 3-yard line and the Rams down eight, Clemons recalled Thomas’ speed.

He rolled left, and for a moment it looked like he might be able to run it in. Instead, he threw an incomplete pass, and the Rams settled for a field goal. They lost 14-9.

“It happens quick,” Clemens told reporters after the game. “I don’t know if I would’ve had a chance to make it. It’s always a little nervous when you break contain against that team. As we saw in the third quarter, Earl Thomas can come out of nowhere.”

Said Carroll: “That’s the kind of impact great players have, meaning that even though they’re not there, their opponent might think they are.

“That’s what great players do. They have a presence that extends beyond maybe even their own physical range.”

Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or jjenks@seattletimes.com



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