Thomas deserves NFL’s top defender award

RENTON — Believe it or not, there was a time when Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll had to threaten Earl Thomas with a benching.

Thomas, who has developed into one of the best defensive players in the NFL, showed tremendous potential as a rookie in 2010, but he also occasionally focused more on making a big play than he did doing what was asked of him in Carroll’s defense.

“He won’t want to admit to this, but there was a time where I said, ‘you know what Earl, I’m going to have to sit you down, because it’s getting to the point where we don’t know what you’re going to do next,’” Carroll said. “Earl at the time thought that he needed to make plays, and I convinced him that we needed him to play the defense that we’re calling. He wanted to do the right thing, he just had a young man’s perception of it and he was flying all around, and he made tremendous plays, but he made some good ones for the other guys, too, at times.”

Carroll is wrong in regards to one part of that story. Thomas has no problem admitting he had a hard time balancing his desire to make things happen with doing what he knows he should be doing at the back end of the NFL’s best defense. In fact, the safety says, he still struggles with that, even as he has grown into being an All-Pro player widely considered one of the best, if not the best safety in the league.

“I still kind of battle with that,” Thomas said. “I just always want to be around the ball. I want to be around the ball, plain and simple. My rookie year, that would take me out of position, because I wanted to be at the point of attack at all times. I just had to get adjusted to my role. Still today, I feel like I’m the best at all times and I want to always show what I’m about, I want to impact the game. You’ve just got to know how to do it within your role.”

Thomas has figured out how to be a playmaker while within his role, which has led to the most productive season of his young career — his 105 tackles are a career high, and five interceptions matches his rookie-season total — and is a big reason why the Seahawks finished the season giving up the fewest yards, passing yards and points in the NFL while also forcing the most turnovers.

And as the best player on the league’s best defense, Thomas deserves to be the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, even if he may well not get the award. His stats really don’t begin to paint a picture of how much he means to Seattle’s defense — behind Russell Wilson, Thomas is his team’s most irreplaceable player — or how much what he does creates opportunities for his teammates. Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, another viable DPOY candidate, has a league-best eight interceptions in part because, despite knowing how good Sherman is, opposing quarterbacks still take shots down the sideline instead of throwing deep in the middle of the field. The part of the field Thomas patrols, which he has dubbed “Area 29” has become a no-fly zone for most NFL offenses when they face the Seahawks, and you’d better believe there’s a lot of value in taking away that much of a field before a game even starts.

“One of the things that you don’t see, but that exists, is the factor that he plays just being back there,” Carroll said. “Think about over the last couple of years how many times you have seen a post route, which is one of the most common routes in football, thrown at our defense for a big play. It doesn’t happen very often. I can barely remember any of them. Any balls thrown down the seam or in the post, it’s a rare occurrence when it happens, and that’s a factor that a guy plays because they know he’s back there.”

Carroll goes on to note that the Seahawks gave up fewer explosive plays than anyone in the NFL, which brings up one of the more remarkable stats about Seattle’s dominant defense, and one that perhaps best illustrates Thomas’ impact. The Seahawks led the NFL with 39 takeaways and 28 interceptions, while also allowing the fewest passing plays of 20 or more yards (30) and 40 or more (3) in the league.

Usually when you think about a defense that limits big plays, you think of a conservative unit, and when you think of one that forces a lot of turnovers, you think aggressive, ball-hawking unit. Yet the Seahawks managed to be both in 2013, which is a testament to everyone on the field, but especially the deep safety who rarely lets anything get by him, and who frees up everyone else to make plays on the ball knowing Thomas is there to clean up should something go wrong.

“He’s a very disciplined, very well-structured player now, and we can totally count on him in carrying out the schemes in the defense,” Carroll said. “… A huge impact is played by that guy that plays back there in the middle. (Big plays) just don’t happen very often. Numbers of times he’ll cover for somebody else outside of the middle of the field, too. He gets over the top and makes a play, so that’s a big issue.

“Also you have to watch him flash. He’s got such tremendous acceleration, and he’s so confident in what he sees now that when he goes he just flies. That’s what stands out when you evaluate his play over other guys.”

That confidence in Thomas comes through on and off the field. He won’t hesitate to tell you that his goal isn’t just to be one of the best safeties in the NFL, but to be one of the best players in the NFL. Sherman has lauded Thomas as the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Thomas isn’t going to return the favor.

“I’m going to have to say me,” Thomas said when asked who should win the award. “That’s all I have to say about that.”

Is Thomas confident boarding on cocky? Yes. Is he wrong? No. Others who put up more gaudy numbers like pass rushers Robert Mathis and Robert Quinn, or Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly might edge Thomas out for DPOY honors, especially if he and Sherman take votes from each other, but why shouldn’t the best player on the league’s best defense be recognized?

“Just like a quarterback that gets MVP, it’s usually the best player on the best team, I think the best player on the best defense should probably get the Defensive Player of the Year,” Sherman said. “You can’t punish them for how great the other players are, how great a front seven you have, or how great the other players around you are.”

Since the Defensive Player of the Year started in 1971, only five safeties have won it, including Seattle’s Kenny Easley in 1984. Four years after Carroll threatened to bench his young safety, a more in-control Thomas deserves to be number six.

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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