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Seahawks ‘got it right' with rookie safety Thomas

Earl Thomas, the first-round pick from Texas, leads Seattle with four interceptions.

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By John Boyle
Herald Writer
Published:
  • Seahawks rookie safety Earl Thomas intercepts a pass — his fourth pick of the season — in last Sunday's game against the Cardinals.

    Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald

    Seahawks rookie safety Earl Thomas intercepts a pass — his fourth pick of the season — in last Sunday's game against the Cardinals.

RENTON — Lawyer Milloy is in his 15th NFL season. He has started over 200 games, played in two Super Bowls and been to four Pro Bowls, so it's safe to say that the Seahawks strong safety has seen some pretty talented players throughout his career.
Yet none of the safeties Milloy has played with or against can compare to Seahawks rookie free safety Earl Thomas when it comes to speed and raw athletic ability.
“It's unmatched,” Milloy said. “Athletic ability, his ball-hawking ability, his awareness, it's everything you want.”
And it's precisely why the Seahawks used the 14th pick in this year's draft on a somewhat raw but supremely talented 20-year-old from the University of Texas.
Despite his obvious potential, there were plenty of questions about Thomas when the Seahawks drafted him, but all he has done through six games is prove that he belongs. The biggest knock on Thomas coming into the league was his size. At 5-foot-10, 202 pounds, Thomas hardly qualifies as small, but he's not the ideal size for an NFL safety either. Yet through six games, Thomas has been on the field for every defensive snap while also contributing on special teams, and he has not shied away from contact by any means.
“The game is physical, but football is physical in general, so you adapt just like you adapted to college and high school,” said Thomas, who at 21 years old is the youngest player on Seattle's roster. “The biggest difference from college to the NFL is the quarterbacks. They're way more mature, they give you more looks and they're smarter. That's the biggest difference.”
That biggest difference, the sophistication of NFL quarterbacks and offenses, figured to be another potential pitfall for Thomas. And that's hardly a concern unique to Thomas.
“I really didn't understand football and what it entailed at this level probably until my second or going into my third year,” Milloy said. “As far as everything starting to slow down, understanding offenses, motions, sets, all of that didn't come until my third year.”
After redshirting his freshman year at Texas, Thomas played just two seasons before declaring for the draft. That's not a ton of preparation for a player whose job is to be the last line of defense for the Seahawks. And there have been mistakes to be sure, just none of the glaring, hey-that-receiver-just-ran-by-you-for-an-easy-touchdown variety. A big part of that is because the Seahawks, for the time being anyway are intentionally limiting what Thomas is asked to do.
“Right now, we're trying to make sure he's really disciplined and strict about what he's doing and making sure he's real accountable and consistent,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said. “As a young guy, it's a lot to ask. You've got to remember, Earl did not play much as a redshirt guy, then freshman redshirt, then sophomore redshirt, then he's out. He's not been around a tremendous amount of high-level football, so he's still got a tremendous amount to learn. He loves the game and he studies like crazy and it's really important to him, so he's going to really grow. I think he's going to be a fantastic player for a long time because he has the ability to make plays and he has this unbelievable range.”
That range is a big part of the reason Thomas is able to recover from whatever rookie mistakes he has made. If anything, Carroll said, the Seahawks are trying to limit the amount of ground Thomas is asked to cover as he learns the defense. But his range also allows other defenders like Milloy more freedom to operate knowing they have a player behind them that can cover large quantities of real estate in a flash.
Take, for example, Thomas' interception in last week's win over Arizona. Thomas make the catch look routine — easy even — yet what you may not have noticed was how much ground he covered to get there. Plenty of other safeties might have caught the ball, but few would have been parked under it like Thomas, ready to set up a return before the ball hit his hands.
“He's coming along man, it's fun to see,” Milloy said. “He's maturing in front of our eyes and doing what we're asking him to do. When it's time, he's letting his athletic ability show. It's something special, man. It's something that Seahawks fans, people in this locker room and this organization should be very, very excited about. I think they got it right with that one.”
Thomas already has four interceptions, one more than any Seahawk had last season, leaving him one short of the team's rookie record. With 10 games remaining, he could even threaten the team record of 10 in a season.
Playing someone who is talented but inexperienced is nothing new for Carroll. During his first go-around in the NFL, he subscribed to the theory that rookies will cost a team games, but when he took over at USC, he saw the value in playing the best players, no matter how young. That, along with Thomas' status and contract as a first-rounder, made it a no-brainer to throw the rookie into the starting lineup. And after proving his doubters wrong at the college level, Thomas is well on his way to doing the same in the professional ranks.
“I know they're paying me a lot of money, and I knew I'd get a shot,” he said. “It's been up to me to keep my job. ... “I never was the biggest guy there. They had guys bigger than me, they had guys coming in who were five-star athletes, but once I got to Texas, the best man played. They threw me out there and I proved them right.”
And so far this season, he's proving the Seahawks right as well.
Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com. For more Seahawks coverage, check out the Seahawks blog at heraldnet.com/seahawksblog

Seahawks at Raiders

When: Today, 1:15 p.m.Where: Oakland ColiseumTV: Fox (Ch. 13)Radio: ESPN 710 AM and 97.3 FM KIRO

Story tags » Seahawks

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