Twenty four year old NFL players aren’t supposed to dominate their position. It’s a league of instinct, talent, and athleticism, which are all things any 24-year-old in the league should have access to. But consistent, overreaching success is more commonly regulated by different aspects within the game, such as timing, knowledge, and experience. Years of mistakes, repetition, and adjustments eventually lead to molded intuition, which then separates the great from the very good.
One week before Texas safety Earl Thomas was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks with the 14th overall pick in 2010, former NFL safety and current NFL Network game and draft analyst Mike Mayock had this to say:
"I think he's what the league is all about today. To me, he should be a top 15 pick. He probably won't be, but he should be. He's the most instinctive free safety I've seen in a lot of years. He will tackle. He's a playmaker. He had eight interceptions. He can cover man. In the passing league that the NFL has become, he's the ideal safety."
This is defining praise; three years later, at the age of 24, Thomas has exceeded it, becoming the best free safety in football. In both 2011 and 2012 he made the Pro Bowl, and last year the Associated Press and Pro Football Writers Associated voted him First-Team All-Pro. (This season was played while Thomas was 23.)
Here’s what Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll had to say a few weeks ago, comparing Thomas to other great safeties he’s seen in his 30 years of coaching:
"Earl is as good as any of the (safeties) I've ever coached. All those guys are different, and Earl is more like Troy because of his extraordinary speed and his size and all that. But there's no end to the potential that Earl has, because he's so fast and he's so tough. But more than that, he's just so driven to be great."
And to top it off with the most blunt applause of all, here’s Grantland’s great Bill Barnwell in his Second Annual Trade Value column from July:
“Thomas is already the best safety in football and he's just 24 years old, so if he stays healthy, we could very well be looking at a guy who is a lock for the Hall of Fame by 30.”
Thomas came in at No. 23 on the list, ahead of Richard Sherman, Aldon Smith, DeMarcus Ware, Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson. Mostly because Thomas is very, very good. But also because he plays a position that’s so difficult to fill with young talent.
Not all analysis has been as nice, though. From Pro Football Focus:
“The truth is, though, we think — while he’s a decent enough player — bracketing him with the likes of Weddle, Byrd etc. is a long stretch.”
Basic numbers can’t quite do a free safety’s impact justice (here are Thomas’ anyway: through the past three years: he’s intercepted 10 balls, defended 22 passes, recovered three fumbles, made 166 solo tackle, with 62 assists), but what separates Thomas from the rest is his special ability to make plays nobody else can.
He’s elite in so many different areas, which is what all great safeties need to be today. He’s one of the league’s finest tacklers in the open field, agile enough to avoid larger blockers and make difficult open field takedowns appear routine. This stuff is important. More important is his rare, natural ability defending the pass.
Thomas does a fine job reading the quarterback’s eyes, knowing where the ball is headed, and he combines that instinct with hash mark to hash mark speed that blinds.
Last year Pro-Football-Reference.com gave him an approximate value of 13, which was higher than Eric Weddle, Ed Reed, Eric Berry, and Jairus Byrd. For the second straight season, the NFL Network (and his colleagues) ranked Thomas as the 66th best player in the league.
At 24, players aren’t supposed to dominate. Earl Thomas has been doing it the past couple years, and in 2013 he should be even better.