The 2019 NFL season officially begins at 4 p.m. Eastern time on March 13 with the start of the new league year but teams can begin negotiating with free agents during the oxymoronic “legal tampering” period on March 11, and the 49ers figure to be very active.
Every 49ers fan has his own flavor when it comes to which free agents the team should go after, but if there is any name that garners anything close to a consensus it is free safety Earl Thomas. Thomas has the bona fides: he is a six-time pro-bowler, three-time All-Pro and a Super Bowl champion. Thomas will be 30 before the start of the season and is coming off of a season shortened by a broken leg. The $30 million question for the 49ers is, is Thomas a good fit or just a flashy name?
In 16 games last season, the 49ers had eight different starting safety combinations and none of them were particularly good. The six safeties that accumulated enough snaps to qualify for Pro Football Focus’s final rankings all were ranked between 54 and 93 with Adrian Colbert, last season’s opening day starter at free safety, grading out with a 31.7 overall grade, finishing as the 93rd ranked safety out of 93 qualifying players.
Earl Thomas did not see enough action to be included in the final rankings by Pro Football Focus, but he finished with a yearly grade of 91.6.
The 49ers run a Cover-3 scheme that is modeled after the defense employed by Thomas’ former team, the Seattle Seahawks. The free safety in the Cover-3 is the most important position in the secondary and a really good one can really send a defense to the next level. From 2012-2015, the Seahawks led the NFL in fewest points allowed per game each season and were again leading the league in that category in 2016 until Thomas got hurt with four games left in the regular season. Seattle gave up an average of 16.2 points per game that season with Thomas, and in the four regular season and two playoff games without him they surrendered 23.3.
There are legitimate questions about the durability of Earl Thomas as he heads into his age-30 season. Thomas, who began his career with a streak of 107 consecutive games played, has missed at least two games in each of the last three seasons. Thomas suffered a broken left tibia in 2016 and again broke his lower left leg four games into the 2018 season. After the injury in 2016 Thomas opted to not have the break surgically repaired, which may have contributed to the most recent break. This time around, Thomas opted to have the break surgically repaired back in October, which will decrease the chance of re-injury. Aside from the twice-fractured tibia, Thomas has suffered from a separated shoulder and a hamstring injury that cost him two games in 2017, but he has not had any ligament or other soft tissue injuries.
Last year the 49ers had an NFL record-low two interceptions as a team. Earl Thomas has had at least that many interceptions in every year of his career, except for one, including last year when Thomas had three interceptions despite being limited to four games.
The 49ers secondary, outside of Richard Sherman, did not play well last year and was plagued by communication issues, blown coverages and a lack of turnovers and Earl Thomas is exactly the stabilizing force that the secondary needs. Adding a player that can act as a coach on the field will imbue the younger players on the defense with much needed confidence because they know Thomas will make sure everyone is where they need to be and most importantly, they know Thomas will be where he needs to be. Last year, Kyle Shanahan said that the team lacked “closers.” By adding Thomas, the 49ers would be getting a closer at a valuable position.
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