Could Earl Thomas be the Solution to the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell Problem?

The first and third-most talked about contract disputes (Khalil Mack is safely at number two) in the NFL this year have dragged on into the regular season. If you are a football fan, you no doubt know that Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell will not sign his franchise tag tender. You likely also know the Seahawks are locked in a heated dispute with safety Earl Thomas. Both are elite level players responsible for a lot of the success these two teams have had in recent years, but both seem equally intent on playing elsewhere in order to get a bigger paycheck. Speculation about where each could land continues to roll on, but it is possible Seattle and Pittsburgh could solve the other’s problem.

So far this year, Pittsburgh has been burned in the secondary. The Steelers have allowed the fifth most passing yards and are tied with the Saints for the most passing touchdowns given up. For Seattle, this team has stated it would like to get back to running the ball more. Unfortunately, the Seahawks rank 25th in rushing yards and have the third worst yards per carry average in the league. Even with a bevy of options in the backfield, no one has managed to really take control.

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Bell has missed 15 games over the past three seasons with the Steelers. (Wikimedia Commons)

The truth is, the Steelers no longer need Bell. He would still be an upgrade over James Connor, but the second year back from the University of Pittsburgh ranks eight in yards from scrimmage so far this year. The need to patch up the secondary is a big one. Earl Thomas would be a huge upgrade over Sean Davis. Pro Football Focus ranks Davis as the 41st safety in the league. Thomas tops the list.

For Seattle, they have a number of young backs, but the chance to add Le’Veon Bell and potentially reduce the number of hits Russell Wilson takes would be massive. Bell had the second most yards from scrimmage in the league last year. His ability as a pass blocker and pass catcher would take a ton of pressure off Wilson. Even though Seattle has a couple of young running backs, none of them will ever come close to playing at the same level as Bell as he enters his prime.

Financially, there is some interesting movement here. Bell is going to want a massive extension. Todd Gurley set the market in a lot of ways for running backs when he negotiated his extension with the Rams. CBS Sports reported back in July Bell wanted roughly $17 million per year in the deal, turning down a massive five-year $70-million offer from Pittsburgh. Seattle might be willing to go a little higher to land him. Using Spotrac, I put together a contract that pays Le’Veon an average of $15.1 million per year in the form of a 5-year $75.5-million deal. That is still short of his asking price, but it tops the Steelers’ last offer.

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Thomas has 28 career interceptions, including three this season. (Wikimedia Commons)

Thomas wants to be paid as well. Eric Berry is the highest paid safety in the league out in Kansas City. The Steelers already have a Bell-sized opening in their cap number, so absorbing Thomas’ cap hit this season would be no big deal. Signing Thomas to something like a 4-year $48 million contract should appease him. It would put him in the same category as Berry and Tyrann Mathieu in terms of average salary.

These are just some rough numbers I ran, but both seem like realistic contracts for each of them to sign. Bell and Thomas both desperately need a change of scenery. It checks a lot of boxes for both teams, filling a need, sending the player to the opposite conference to avoid playing them again and moving on from a player that clearly no longer wants to be part of the organization.

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NFL Cornerstones: Free Safety

Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I have a couple of parameters for this selection though. I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think this should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope you all agree.

The selection: Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks
Honorable mentions: Rahim Moore, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Harrison Smith, Devin McCourty, Tashaun Gipson

If speed kills, strength intimidates and Earl Thomas has both. The Seattle free safety is a bullet flying around in the secondary, simply wreaking havoc. Thomas is a dominant defender on one of the best defenses in NFL history. That right there should speak volumes about his play. There are several other talented players at the free safety position but comparatively, none of them bring the incredible cumulative skill set that Thomas does.

Thomas has some of the most important attributes to playing safety in the NFL, but he has some other traits that set him apart. Thomas is still young, at just 25-years old and 5 years played in the league. His youth spells years of elite production to come. And he can be counted on to stay on the field. Since joining the Seahawks in 2010, Thomas has yet to miss a game, starting every single one of them. He has dependability and consistency, something many of the other players considered do not. Thomas’ biggest competition came from a fellow member of the 2010 draft class.

Devin McCourty burst onto the scene in his rookie season with 7 interceptions and 17 passes defended. He has yet to ever match that kind of productivity. Not that anyone every really expected him to based on the absurd level at which he played. Over their careers, McCourty and Thomas have posted very similar stats in their respective five-year span. It makes the decision between the two very difficult.

As a pass defender, McCourty does have a slight advantage. He has recorded 17 interceptions in his career to Thomas’ 16. That is very close but McCourty blows Thomas out of the water when it comes to disrupted passes with the split standing 58 to 38. However, that could also mean that McCourty is thrown at more. Either way, McCourty has topped Thomas in two of the most important categories for free safeties. The question remains how does Thomas get selected? Well…

Thomas is a far superior tackler than McCourty. Thomas has racked up 442 tackles or 88 per season. His Patriot counterpart has only 388 or roughly 77 a year. Thomas is all over the field, getting involved in as many plays as he can. Not that McCourty doesn’t but Thomas certainly does it better. In terms of making things happen when they make the tackle, the two once again are inseparable. Both have forced eight fumbles in their career. Thomas has a slight advantage here though with his four fumble recoveries to McCourty’s one. Both have almost identical run stopping numbers as well with 13 run stuffs for McCourty and 11 for Thomas.

It is near impossible to separate these two based on statistics alone. However, based on their skills there is a bit of a gap. McCourty and Thomas have very similar body types, both measuring in at 5 foot 10 inches. Thomas does weigh slightly more at 202 pounds compared to McCourty’s 195. However, Thomas’ blazing speed, impeccable awareness and superior strength set him apart. You can argue that Thomas has better running mates than McCourty but McCourty’s surrounding talent is Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Not to mention that McCourty benefits from playing under one of the best defensive coaches of all-time.

Simply stated, this is a very close call. However, I like Thomas’ tenacity and speed. Those two things make him a dynamic player, not to mention that they are traits that you cannot coach. On top of that, Thomas is two years younger than McCourty, giving him hopefully a little bit larger window to play at an elite level. Either one would be great to build at defense around, but Thomas’ physical tools make him the better selection.

For more Cornerstone selections, click here.