Earl Thomas' worst fears were realized against the Cardinals on Sunday: a season-ending injury during his contract year. The Seahawks safety fractured his left leg in the fourth quarter, and Seattle has placed him on injured reserve. A similar break to Thomas' lower left leg in 2016 sidelined him 11 games into the season.
Thomas' injury effectively ends any realistic possibility of Seattle dealing him before the Oct. 30 trading deadline. Discussions between the Seahawks and Chiefs had progressed, according to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, after Seattle lowered its asking price for Thomas to a second-round pick. The Seahawks had reportedly rebuffed the Cowboys' efforts to acquire Thomas prior to their Week 3 game.
Thomas had emerged as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate after ending his holdout a few days before the regular season started because his "pay me or trade me" ultimatum to the Seahawks fell on deaf ears. He is tied for the NFL lead with three interceptions.
The break is expected to close the chapter on the Seahawks' portion of the five-time All-Pro's career, although he can be designated as a franchise player in 2019. It would cost Seattle $12.48 million to use the designation on him, which is 120 percent of his current $10.4 million salary cap number. Thomas is in the final year of a four-year contract extension signed in 2014 averaging $10 million per year, which made him the NFL's highest-paid safety at the time.
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Teams are more willing to gamble on injured players
An injury-plagued year or with a season-ending injury in a contract year used to be the kiss of death for most players entering free agency. A one year "prove it" deal or a below-market long-term contract were almost a certainty.
Teams aren't penalizing injured players on the open market as severely anymore. The Panthers raised a lot of eyebrows by signing left tackle Matt Kalil to five-year, $55.5 million contract with $25 million in guarantees, of which $24 million was fully guaranteed at signing, as a free agent in 2017. He got the deal after missing most of the 2016 season, his final one with the Vikings who drafted him, because of a hip problem and regression since being named a Pro Bowl alternate as a rookie in 2012. The way Kalil's contract is structured practically ensures he should see at least the first three years, although he performed poorly in 2017 and is currently on injured reserve after preseason surgery on his right knee. There are adverse salary cap consequences for releasing Kalil prior to the 2020 season.
The Bears gave wide receiver Allen Robinson a three-year, $42 million contract with $25.2 million in guarantees despite him tearing the ACL in his left knee during the Jaguars' 2017 season opener. Robinson was coming off a disappointing 2016 campaign which could have been partially attributed to quarterback Blake Bortles' struggles. In 2015, Robinson became the first Jaguars player to top 1,000 receiving yards (1,400) since Jimmy Smith in 2005. He also led the NFL with 31 catches of 20 or more yards.
Thomas should have a clean bill of health or close to it when free agency starts next March. Kalil and Robinson, whose injures were more serious than Thomas', were going to be 27 and 25, respectively, for their first season under their new contracts. Although Thomas turns 30 before the 2019 season starts, he was playing at a much higher level than either Kalil or Robinson were before their injuries. Thomas was arguably the NFL's best safety during the first quarter of the season.
What Thomas' next contract will look like
The injury is unlikely to change Thomas' asking price during the offseason. Thomas is expected to try to reclaim his place at the top of the safety pay scale. Eric Berry is the current benchmark with the six-year, $78 million contract containing $40 million in guarantees he received from the Chiefs in 2017. He was 28 when he signed the deal and has yet to return from the torn Achilles he suffered in Kansas City's 2017 regular-season opener.
The safety market was extremely soft this year. Eric Reid's significant role in the national anthem protests were a contributing factor in him still being available until he signed with the Panthers last week. Reid filed a grievance against the NFL in early May alleging collusion because of his lack of employment. Tre Boston, who intercepted five passes last season, and Kenny Vaccaro, a starter in 67 of the 68 NFL games he had played prior to this season, didn't find work until the end of July and early August. There has been speculation that Boston and Vaccaro were collateral damage of the Reid saga. All three signed one year deals with a base value that didn't exceed $1.5 million.
The 2019 safety market shouldn't suffer the same fate. A higher caliber of players should be available. In addition to Thomas, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Packers), Landon Collins (Giants), Lamarcus Joyner (Rams) and Tyrann Mathieu (Texans) could hit the open market. Collins may be best candidate for a franchise tag out of any of the safeties since the Giants made Odell Beckham, Jr. the NFL's highest-paid wide receiver during the preseason. The Rams franchised Joyner this year for $11.287 million. A second franchise tag with the Collective Bargaining Agreement mandated 20 percent increase will be $13,544,400.
Thomas' next contract may be affected more structurally than financially, despite his age, with teams beginning to take a more enlightened approach toward injured free agents. Topping Berry's $40 million in overall guarantees seems less likely than his $13 million average yearly salary. A three- or four-year contract bettering the latter wouldn't be surprising. Berry had $25 million fully guaranteed at signing. Thomas' first two contract years being completely secure doesn't seem like a stretch either.
A case can be made that Thomas is the best safety of the current generation of players. Bill Belichick heaped high praise on Thomas during the middle of the 2016 season by calling him an Ed Reed type because of his instincts, range, ball skills and anticipation. He considers Reed the best free safety he's seen during his NFL days, which date back to 1975.
There shouldn't be a sharp decline with Thomas in at least the first two years of his contract if there's any validity to the Reed comparison. Reed, a potential first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2019, earned All-Pro honors during his first four seasons in his thirties and led the NFL in interceptions as a 30 and 32 year old. Thomas would be 33 when his contract expired if he signed for four years.
Where will Thomas end up?
It's widely known that Thomas' preference is to play for the Cowboys. The Texas native created a bit of a stir by lobbying Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett to either trade for him or sign him if he ever hits free agency after a game between the two teams late last season. Thomas had a great audition this season against Dallas by picking off two of Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott passes. Kris Richard, who was Seattle's defensive coordinator the last three seasons, is the Cowboys' secondary coach.
The Cowboys have taken a conservative approach to free agency in recent years, although a run was made at wide receiver Sammy Watkins this offseason before he signed a three-year, $48 million contract with the Chiefs containing $30 million fully guaranteed. Their last big free agent signing was cornerback Brandon Carr in 2012. He received a five-year, $50.1 million contract with $26.5 million in guarantees, and $25.5 million was fully guaranteed at signing. The deal made Carr, who's never been to the Pro Bowl or earned All-Pro honors, the NFL's fourth-highest-paid cornerback by average yearly salary.
Dallas is projected to have approximately $45 million of salary cap room next year, assuming the 2019 salary cap is set in the $190 million neighborhood. This is using offseason cap accounting rules where only the top 51 cap numbers matter and includes a second franchise tag for defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, who is currently leading the NFL in sacks, at $20,571,600. Although Thomas wants to be in Dallas, the Cowboys dragging their feet in free agency or not making an offer that's competitive with other teams could prompt him to sign elsewhere.