It’s not hard to find speculation pending free-agent safety Earl Thomas will find his way to the San Francisco 49ers in 2019. But how big would the difference be?
Thomas has already been thrown around the proverbial speculation mill this offseason, particularly after failing to reach a contract extension with the Seahawks in 2018, then suffering a season-ending leg injury and giving a provocative hand signal to his teammates’ sideline.
Niner Noise already wrote about it. Thomas’ former teammate in Seattle, cornerback Richard Sherman, talked about it. And earlier this week, ESPN predicted Thomas would wind up in San Francisco, just like Sherman, writing:
"For the second year in a row, the Niners will add a former part of the “Legion of Boom” after grabbing Richard Sherman last year. Sherman already has said he’s willing to help recruit Thomas if needed, and while Thomas should have no shortage of suitors, the fit in San Francisco is as obvious for him as it was for Sherman in 2018. Thomas would instantly provide the stability the Niners clearly missed in the secondary last season while adding another valuable leader for a young defense."
With both a need at free safety and over $60 million in projected cap space for 2019, the Niners shouldn’t have too many issues in the way of making it happen.
But what would the actual difference be? How would Thomas’ presence impact San Francisco’s primarily young defense?
Well, there’s the first answer. Outside of Sherman, the Niners boast one of the younger defenses in the league, particularly in the secondary. Fellow defensive backs Ahkello Witherspoon, Marcell Harris, D.J. Reed and Adrian Colbert are all either one- or two-year pros, meaning the 29-year-old Thomas would be bringing both a three-time first-team All-Pro pedigree with veteran prowess.
That’s a plus, particularly for a 49ers secondary Pro Football Focus ranked dead last after 2018.
It goes beyond that, however. As most know by now, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh adopted the same Cover 3 single-high safety scheme the Seahawks still use. Thomas helped make that system thrive ever since being selected 14th overall back in the 2010 NFL Draft.
Plus, PFF never graded Thomas below 71.6, aside from his rookie season. And over the last four years, Thomas’ PFF grades have been 90.6, 79.6, 90.2 and 91.3 from 2015 through 2018, respectively.
Meanwhile, Colbert’s 31.7 overall grade last year before landing on injured reserve ranked dead last among qualifying safeties.
Thomas also recorded 12 interceptions during that span. Comparatively, all of San Francisco’s defense had just two last year.
The scheme fit is notable. And even though Thomas will turn 30 years old before the 2019 regular season, his over-the-top ranginess and reaction skills are still there and should continue to be despite the injury.
As was the case with Sherman, the 49ers will likely be somewhat cautious in their approach to a possible NFL free agency contract this offseason. Should they go that route, of course. Yet in what might be a prove-it year for Thomas anyway, the Niners would be adding a vast improvement over what’s already on the roster.
And that secondary should take a massive leap forward as a result.
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