SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman is wont to do, he cut straight to the point when asked about the forthcoming free agency of safety and close friend Earl Thomas.
Speaking to reporters at the NFL scouting combine, Sherman made it clear a reunion with Thomas on the 49ers is a real possibility. He also cautioned that Thomas’ decision will come down to what most free-agent decisions do: money.
“There’s serious interest,” said Sherman, who along with Thomas helped make up the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Doom defense. “There’s obviously a clear and easy fit. But financially it has to make sense. If you go into free agency and say, ‘Hey, we offer Earl Thomas $7 million.’ It doesn’t matter how much I recruit or how much you say. If finances make sense, then I’d say we’re a major player in it, if everything aligns the right way.”
Sherman also was quick to point out if the money is about the same in multiple offers, Thomas has a preferred destination.
“Now if Dallas is a player in it, I’m not going to lie, he’s going to go [to] Dallas,” Sherman said. “That’s his home. If the money is equal, if all things are equal, he’s going to Dallas.”
As the NFL’s early negotiating window opens Monday, what once seemed a fait accompli — Thomas landing with the Dallas Cowboys — now seems like a long shot. Perhaps that should be no surprise given that Dallas, while it has plenty of cap space, also is likely to pay defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott, wide receiver Amari Cooper and defensive back Byron Jones over the next couple of years. None of those players will come cheap and most will be expected to be compensated at or near the top of their respective position groups.
Given that, it seems Thomas would have to be willing to accept a home-state discount to end up in Dallas. There have been no indications Thomas is looking to do that. Quite the opposite, in fact. According to multiple reports, Thomas is looking to become the game’s highest-paid safety, which means something close to $13 million in average annual value.
Enter the 49ers. San Francisco enters the new league year with nearly $70 million in salary-cap space, a clear need at free safety and as an obvious fit for Thomas. Surely Thomas wouldn’t mind playing the Seahawks twice a year, and he has plenty of experience playing in the Niners’ defensive scheme (which is quite similar to what Thomas had in Seattle).
While coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch haven’t said which players they’re specifically targeting, they’ve made it clear they’re interested in bolstering their roster at almost every position.
“We can go any direction. It’s what’s available,” Shanahan said. “You realize you’re not going to be able to do everything. So where do you want to be a little bit weaker? Where do you want to stronger? And you hope as you build this the right way.”
An easy argument could be made that safety is a position the 49ers should want to be “stronger” at in 2019 after they found themselves cycling through multiple players last season.
Adrian Colbert, who was the opening-day starter, missed nine games with an ankle injury. He finished with 20 tackles and a pass breakup, but he created no turnovers and struggled in the role of single-high safety. By season’s end, the Niners had five players start a game at free safety and none came up with an interception as San Francisco set a league record for futility with seven takeaways on the season.
Undoubtedly, Thomas would represent a massive upgrade, considering he had more interceptions (three) in four games than the Niners did as a team all last season (two). Thomas’ track record of production goes well beyond that small sample. In nine seasons in Seattle, Thomas posted 637 tackles, 28 interceptions, 10 forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and 30 pass breakups in 125 games. Along the way, he earned six Pro Bowl berths, three first-team and two second-team All-Pro nods and a Super Bowl ring.
Of course, as is always the case in free agency, two undeniable truths come with landing a big fish like Thomas. One, the team that lands him will have to overpay, and two, there’s going to be at least some risk involved. In Thomas’ case, that risk comes from the fact that two serious leg injuries have limited him to 29 games over the past three seasons and he will turn 30 on May 7.
That means the Niners (and any team interested) must weigh how they believe Thomas will bounce back from the broken bone in his left leg and how much he has left before determining a price tag.
The good news? Thomas looked every bit the dominant, future Hall of Fame player he is in his four games last season, and players like him and Sherman thrive off doubters.
“It’s a great opportunity for Earl, to have the free agency status now,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said at the scouting combine. “The play that he showed last year was extraordinary. He was on fire, until he got banged up. … I’m excited to watch and see what he does.”
Whether the Niners will go to the lengths necessary to land Thomas remains to be seen. They’ll undoubtedly have competition — the Chargers and Falcons are two other obvious fits — and the free-agent market isn’t lacking for talent at safety. If Thomas’ price proves too rich, the Niners could still turn to someone like Tyrann Mathieu, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Eric Weddle or Lamarcus Joyner, among others. Box safeties, including Landon Collins, are also set to hit free agency.
Last year, the safety market was ice cold. This year, it should be plenty active with Thomas leading the way.