If free agent safety Earl Thomas struggled or showed reasons to believe he was in immediate decline, this information or opinion may be as new as his release from the Baltimore Ravens last week for being a walking, tackling symbol of “Conduct detrimental to the team.”
Thomas could be the human manifestation of an in-house two-game suspension, but it was within the year 2020 that people were also praising him for the impact he had on a defense that from Week 5-17 ranked first in points allowed.
Thomas is now a free agent and the LA Chargers have once again received disheartening news to open another season, this time losing free safety Derwin James for an undetermined amount of time because of a torn meniscus. The Chargers also have Gus Bradley as defensive coordinator, Thomas’ first NFL defensive coordinator from 2010-2012 with the Seattle Seahawks, so obvious connections have been made already between player and team.
This is neither an endorsement or a discouragement of a team signing Thomas. It is only the truth of how Thomas’ 2019 season was reviewed by writers prior to the well-covered incident that got him fired by the Ravens on Aug. 23.
Earl Thomas suffered a broken leg in 2016 that cost him five games and then he returned to the Seahawks in 2017 to post one of his best seasons. People who cite PFF grades will tell you that Thomas received a 76.7 from the website in 2019 (above average, not great), but two seasons earlier they liked him so much as to give him a 90.2. Elite for their standards, and it came one season after his grade was 79.6 over 11 games.
The website decided to assign Thomas a grade of at least 90 in 2014 and 2015 also, but that came after he was only given a grade of 67 in 2012 and 78.9 in 2013, when Seattle won the Super Bowl and Thomas was praised by some as their best all-around player.
All of which is to say that I don’t really use PFF grades as proof of anything — but knowing that people do and that they’ll use Thomas’s 2019 grade as “evidence” or something, I thought it worth pointing out that during his first all-pro season, Thomas had a grade of 67 and during his Super Bowl season-winning season for the NFL’s number one defense (and Seattle was ranked first in DVOA on that side of the ball in four straight years) he had a grade of 78.9.
So his grade of 76.7 for a new defense, new defensive coordinator, and being asked to do things on a defense that he wasn’t always asked to do before, isn’t useful information to me.
I’m much more curious as to what people who cover the Ravens thought of Thomas and Spencer Schultz of Baltimore Beatdown had this to say in March: “Earl Thomas’ quietly dominant season” was the headline of the piece and “Thomas quietly impacted the Ravens defense more than any other defender” sits right below it as the tag.
The defense of Thomas is as follows and covers plenty of the bases about what was good about his 2019 season:
Undoubtedly, what Thomas didn’t do was more impressive. Thomas didn’t allow big plays. That’s not hyperbole, or figurative. There are two resources that track advanced metrics on defensive backs: PFF and Pro Football Reference.
According to PFF, Thomas allowed only six completions in his coverage on 14 targets in 15 games. That’s not a typo - just six receptions.
According to PFF, over the final six weeks of the regular season, Earl Thomas allowed all of *FOUR* yards in coverage. Four.— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) March 5, 2020
Yet because 250 pound Derrick Henry stiff armed Thomas, who saved a touchdown by chasing him down, social media would lead you to believe he stinks
That’s a 42.9% completion rate, the lowest mark of Thomas’ ten-year career. Those six receptions went for 110 yards.
He notched two interceptions on those 14 targets, with a third being called back on a questionable Tony Jefferson DPI call. Considering Thomas lined up at free safety 593 times in 2019, opposing passers avoided Thomas like he had a cold sore at the homecoming dance.
By their tracking, Thomas was thrown at 14 times in 547 coverage snaps. That equates to 2.5 of every 100 passes going Thomas’ way. Pro Football Reference kept a different book on Thomas, showing 11 completions allowed on 25 targets for 113 yards and two interceptions.
That amounts to a 24.2 QB rating. That was the lowest figure in the NFL in 2019. Throwing the ball in the dirt is a 39.3 QB rating. In those 25 passes thrown at Thomas, he had two interceptions and four pass deflections. Six plays on the ball in 25 passes, nearly one every four times the ball way thrown his way.
PFR has Thomas’ 42% completion rate in coverage as the second-lowest in the NFL, and he also didn’t allow a touchdown in his coverage in 2019.
Even after Thomas was released for completely understandably and seemingly legitimate reasons, making it clear why his on-field presence may be undone by his impact in the “locker room,” Schultz defended the safety as being quite valuable to the team with his ability to play football well.
“Thomas played a true middle third or single high for the most part during his time in Seattle. His duty was to patrol deep between the numbers and prevent plays from getting over his head. While the Ravens and Seahawks run quite different defensive concepts, Baltimore asked Thomas to play a similar role on over half of his defensive snaps in 2019. Thomas logged nearly 600 snaps as a free safety. He was tasked with more duty in the box, in the slot, off the edge and at cornerback than he was ever asked in Seattle, which resulted in Thomas notching the first sacks of his career in Baltimore.
Thomas was largely avoided by opposing passers in 2019, only being thrown at 14 times in 547 coverage snaps according to Pro Football Focus. Thomas allowed a mere six receptions and zero touchdown passes into his coverage. That type of avoidance in the deep middle is a result of the respect that opposing teams had for Thomas’ range, instincts and ball skills. By no coincidence, opposing passers and play-callers decided to avoid Thomas intentionally. He was targeted three times in coverage only once in 2019, when Josh Allen threw three passes into Thomas’ coverage, which resulted in one completion for four yards.”
When Thomas was named to the NFL’s Top 100 list again this year, Chris Schisler of Ebony Bird had this to say:
“The Baltimore Ravens fan base doesn’t appreciate Earl Thomas enough....In the 2019 season Thomas was graded at a 76.7 by Pro Football Focus. He had an 84.7 grade in pass coverage. Thomas takes away a lot of plays for the opposing team. His job is to prevent big plays down the field which means he doesn’t need an interception to say he made a great play. According to PFF he only was targeted 13 times and allowed just five receptions. The takeaway point here is that he offered a no-fly zone. If you don’t respect Thomas, I promise you that NFL quarterbacks do.”
And a handful of games into his Baltimore career last October, Ravens.com writer Kevin Eck said Thomas was “playing at a high level;” “Has not been exposed in coverage;” and “Is not washed up athletically.”
“He can still fly around the field. Tracking data proves it. Midway through the fourth quarter in Week 3, Chiefs running back Darrel Williams took a handoff, cruised through a hole at the line of scrimmage and took off down the right sideline. [Safety Tony] Jefferson had been blocked out of the play; only Thomas could stop him. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Williams reached 20.88 mph on the play, the fifth-fastest speed among all Week 3 ball-carriers. But Thomas, the weak-side safety, tracked him down from behind and limited a would-be touchdown to just a 41-yard carry. It was not a perfect play for Thomas, who seemed to slow just as Williams was breaking to the second level, but it was an athletic one.”
In Week 3, Chiefs RB Darrel Williams goes for 43 yards and hits 20.88 mph on the gun -- not Nick Chubb fast, but fast. Thomas is still able to bring him down from behind. pic.twitter.com/qwb7DjxZ56— Jonas Shaffer (@jonas_shaffer) October 2, 2019
A free agent signing that received an “A” grade from analysts almost universally in 2019, Thomas proved not to be an “A” signing barely more than 12 months into his tenure with the franchise. Because of valid concerns regarding his team with both the Ravens and Seahawks — who chose not to extend a Hall of Fame safety that may have been the entire key to their secondaries dominance because of friction between him and Pete Carroll — Thomas is available for any team to sign and on the eve of a new season as teams are desperate to get any edge they can get.
But if we’re talking about the season he just had on the field, let’s not mis-categorize it as him showing signs of “decline” or being “washed up” because of how poorly it ended between him and his former teammates off of the field. The only thing about Earl Thomas that is declining would appear to be his reputation as a leader and important veteran presence.
It may be the only thing you’re getting from Thomas is elite play against the pass. And because of that, some team is going to pay for it.