Dougherty: After missing on Khalil Mack, Packers should upgrade defense by targeting Earl Thomas

Pete Dougherty
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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Safety Earl Thomas has returned to the Seattle Seahawks.

Although the big prize, Khalil Mack, is in Chicago, two other big fish might be on the NFL’s trade market: Pittsburgh's Le’Veon Bell and Seattle's Earl Thomas.

Now that it’s not so far-fetched to think that the Green Bay Packers might get involved, it’s worth considering whether their new general manager, Brian Gutekunst, should make a hard run at either.

The short answer is, no on Bell and yes on Thomas.

The Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t given any indication they’re willing to trade Bell, but the longer his holdout goes, the more that’s open to change. Regardless, pursuing Bell is a non-starter for the Packers for two reasons: his position and cost.

Of course the Packers would be better if they had Bell. Any team would. He’s one of the game’s best running backs and perhaps its most complete.

But there’s a salary cap and budget to consider as well. And while the Packers would love to add him, they don’t need Bell to be a top offense. They already have Aaron Rodgers. The value of a running back at Bell’s cost, both in draft picks and cash, just isn’t there.

It’s hard to imagine the Steelers trading Bell for anything less than a first-round draft pick, and maybe more. A trade also means signing him to a long-term contract. That’s why he’s holding out, he wants a top-of-the-market deal. Todd Gurley set the pace at running back with his recent contract extension that averages $14.375 million in new money and $11.5 million overall.

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But the reality is, running backs have short careers, and at age 26 Bell already has a lot of miles on him. His 1,626 rushes and receptions combined since 2013 are the most in the NFL over that time. He has taken a lot of punishment. The risk of injury or decline in the next couple years is just too high to justify the cost. The Packers are good enough at running back as is.

Thomas is a different story. Not that he’s worth mortgaging the farm like Mack, who, after all, is in his prime (age 27) and that most valued of commodities, a pass rusher. Thomas, on the other hand, while a difference maker, is a 29-year-old safety.

Still, Gutekunst’s defense needs playmakers regardless of position, and Thomas is that. He has 26 interceptions in his career and more importantly played an irreplaceable role in the Seahawks’ Cover-3 defense that dominated the NFL from 2012 through ’16. His speed and instincts patrolling center field as a single-high safety allowed the Seahawks to play Kam Chancellor as essentially another linebacker and made that scheme work.

Those Seahawks’ defenses had uncommonly good talent across the board, but it’s still telling to see what happened when they didn’t have Thomas. He didn’t miss a game from 2012 through ’15, when they won 71.9 percent of their games and played in two Super Bowls. In 2016 they again were a bona fide Super Bowl contender (8-3-1) until Thomas broke his leg in Week 13. Without him, they finished the regular season 2-2 and gave up 36 points to Atlanta in a divisional-round loss in the playoffs.

The question, though, is what he’s worth at age 29. Though he has been a top player – three first-team All-Pros and six Pro Bowls – when age hits in the NFL, it usually hits hard and fast. It wouldn’t be a shock if Thomas started showing decline as early as next year.

At the end of training camp Seattle reportedly turned down Dallas’ offer of a second-round pick for Thomas. But the Seahawks are 0-2, and regardless of what coach Pete Carroll says publicly, they’re in rebuild mode. So maybe in the next few weeks, as the Oct. 30 trade deadline nears, the Seahawks might decide to get what they can for an aging star as they look to the future.

This week I asked three NFL scouts what they’d give up for Thomas. Two said a second-rounder and another said a third. If Dallas is still interested – the Cowboys coincidentally, play at Seattle this weekend – it might take a sweetener, maybe a fourth- or fifth-rounder, to get a deal. If I’m the Packers, that’s about as far as I’d go.

You’re also not trading a second-round pick unless you can sign Thomas to a new contract first. He’s on the last year of his deal and held out of training camp pressing for an extension that never came.

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He, too, will be looking for a top-of-the-market deal for his position. Eric Berry set that last year with a six-year contract that averages $13 million and included $29.8 million in full guarantees.

A six-year deal with that much guaranteed is too much at this point in Thomas’ career. One of the scouts said he’d pay Thomas a three-year extension at $12 million a year and maybe $15 million to $20 million fully guaranteed.

Would all that be enough to swing a deal? That’s up to the Seahawks and the player. But there’s no question Thomas could help the Packers where they need it most. They’re desperate for difference makers on defense, and Thomas is that, even if he isn’t a pass rusher.

While the Packers are OK at safety, Thomas would be a big upgrade. Neither Ha Ha Clinton-Dix nor Kentrell Brice is a true free safety. We saw that Sunday, when they played a big role in three of Minnesota’s four touchdown passes.

Thomas, on the other hand, is a pure free safety – he doesn’t have a sack in his nine-year career and has made his living patrolling center field. He’d provide Mike Pettine the back-end protection to do just about anything the defensive coordinator wants up front. With the Packers’ limitations rushing the passer, that could prove invaluable.

Earl Thomas isn’t another Khalil Mack. Few players are. But he could help the Packers where they really need it.

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