Three-time All-Pro safety Earl Thomas skipped mandatory minicamp with the Seattle Seahawks because he wants a contract extension as he heads into the final year of a four-year, $40 million deal. The Seahawks might not give him what he wants, and there have been rumblings of trade interest from the Dallas Cowboys and other teams. What should Seattle general manager John Schneider do now?
We asked NFL Nation reporters to make their best trade offer -- on behalf of the teams they cover, and only from those teams that have both a need at safety and extra cap space -- for the 29-year-old. We came up with three teams that would have realistic trade interest in Thomas -- the Cowboys, Patriots and Chargers. The offers below are based on what each reporter believes their team's front office could offer the Seahawks in a trade, plus what each organization could offer Thomas, a six-time Pro Bowler, in a potential extension.
We then had ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando take on the role of Schneider and pick the best offer for the Seahawks, and then had ESPN NFL reporter Dan Graziano play the role of Thomas' agents, Andrew Kessler and David Mulugheta of Athletes First, to make sure the extension worked for his client. But first, let's get the Seahawks' perspective.
Why Seattle could deal Thomas
The Seahawks are not in negotiations with Thomas, and there has been nothing to indicate they're interested in giving him an extension while his current deal has a season remaining. This Seahawks regime has previously extended the contracts of many "core" players with a year left on their contracts, but Schneider drew a distinction when he noted the majority of those previous extensions a year ahead of free agency were with players on their rookie contracts, meaning that precedent wouldn't necessarily apply to Thomas since he's on his second deal.
Thomas is an all-world talent, a potential Hall of Famer and arguably the most important player on Seattle's defense. Just look at how badly they missed him when he was sidelined late in the 2016 season and their pass defense fell apart, allowing a passer rating of 100.3 with him out of the lineup. But the Seahawks are clearly turning over a new leaf on defense, where they've already moved on from mainstays such as Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett. And they've gotten three recent reminders about the dangers of shelling out big-money extensions to players nearing or over 30 years old. If Kam Chancellor's neck injury prevents him from continuing his career -- a legitimate fear -- then he, Bennett and Marshawn Lynch would have all been extended without playing a down for Seattle beyond the length of their previous deals. Seattle will eat more than $5 million in dead money in 2018, just as it did in 2016 after Lynch retired.
If the Seahawks are going to extend Thomas, it will be on their terms, not his. So their "offer" might be this: play out the last year of your deal or get the franchise tag in 2019, which would mean waiting at least two years for a multiyear extension as opposed to one more. -- Brady Henderson
Trade offer to Seahawks: 2019 third-round pick, 2020 fourth-round pick
Length and value of extension for Thomas: Five years for $62.5 million
Full guarantee at signing: $25 million
Total guarantee: $31 million
The Cowboys' need for a safety has been obvious since the start of the offseason -- they used former undrafted free agent Jeff Heath and former sixth-round pick Xavier Woods as starters during organized team activities. The Dallas front office had discussions with the Seahawks about Thomas that never seemed to go far before and during the draft, and the Seahawks even approached the Cowboys at the combine and asked for their first-round pick.
The organization values its picks, but giving up a third-rounder next year and a fourth-rounder in 2020 allows the Cowboys to spread out the hit over two drafts. And Thomas, who told coach Jason Garrett to "come get me" after a game in December, can be viewed as a final piece to their defense.
The Cowboys would be willing to give Thomas one of the league's best contracts for a safety -- the average annual value of $12.5 million would rank second among safeties behind Kansas City's Eric Berry's $13 million, and total guaranteed money of $31 million would rank third behind Berry ($40 million) and Miami's Reshad Jones ($33 million). This deal also would offer some protection in case the injury bug continues to bite Thomas, who has missed seven games over the past two seasons.
Dallas locked up guard Zack Martin to a long-term extension earlier this month, and it will have decisions to make next offseason on defensive linemen DeMarcus Lawrence and David Irving, who are both free agents, which could complicate its future cap space. Quarterback Dak Prescott is also eligible for an extension in 2019. The Cowboys have just enough cap room to make the Thomas extension work this year, even with $16.9 million in dead cap hits from the releases of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, both of which will come off the books next year. -- Todd Archer
Trade offer to Seahawks: Right guard Shaq Mason
Length and value of extension for Thomas: Three years for $39 million
Full guarantee at signing: $22 million
Total guarantee: $28.5 million
The Patriots run their Big Nickel package (three safeties) as much as any team in the NFL, and return their top three safeties in 2018 with Devin McCourty (97.1 percent of the defensive snaps in 2017), Patrick Chung (87.5) and Duron Harmon (65.8). So Thomas isn't a pressing need, but the Patriots will always explore unexpected opportunities (i.e., Rodney Harrison in 2003) to improve the roster if it seems like a good value with all the pieces falling into place, and this would certainly qualify.
Mason, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, is an ascending player who could command a significant contract at a position at which the market has been reshaped with recent deals for Zack Martin (Cowboys) and Andrew Norwell (Jaguars). Signing him after the 2018 season will be a challenge, and so trading him in this hypothetical situation -- to a team that could use an upgrade at the position -- would fall into a similar category as what the Patriots previously did with the likes of Chandler Jones and Richard Seymour.
As for the financial piece in acquiring Thomas ($13 million average per season, matching Berry), the Patriots would add three years and $39 million on to the end of the 2018 portion of Thomas' contract, allowing them to spread out salary-cap charges over four years. The $22 million guarantee at signing and $28.5 million guarantee overall matches the deal McCourty signed in 2015, which is always a consideration to maintain harmony in the locker room. -- Mike Reiss
Trade offer to Seahawks: 2019 second-round pick and 2020 fourth-round pick
Length and value of extension for Thomas: Four years for $50 million
Full guarantee at signing: $20 million
Total guarantee: $32 million
Thomas is still one of the best safeties in the game, a playmaker who takes the ball away, and he would immediately improve one of the worst run defenses in the NFL. The Chargers are in win-now mode, and he could be the final piece that makes them true Super Bowl contenders.
They picked safety Derwin James in the first round of this year's draft, but he has played mostly strong safety during offseason work. The Chargers rotated several players at free safety this offseason and could still use a rangy center fielder like Thomas to roam the back end of an already talented secondary. Thomas is the ideal fit at free safety for Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley's Cover 3 scheme. Bradley was in Seattle when the organization selected Thomas with the No. 14 overall pick in the 2010 draft.
While it would be tempting to offer Thomas a fully guaranteed contract like Kirk Cousins got from the Vikings this offseason, this extension would push the Texas native near the top of the safety market while protecting the Chargers with the last $10 million in guaranteed money tied to injuries.
The Chargers have about $9 million in salary-cap space in 2018, according to the ESPN Roster Management System, so they would have to get creative in order to bring Thomas into the fold. The Bolts could restructure the contracts of quarterback Philip Rivers (scheduled to make $15 million in 2018) or receiver Travis Benjamin (scheduled to make $5.75 million in 2018) to create some cap space. -- Eric D. Williams
The verdict from the Seahawks' GM
We'll take the Chargers' offer unless the Patriots are willing to sweeten their proposal by throwing in a 2019 pick in the fifth round or higher.
Doing the deal with Los Angeles lets us send Thomas outside the conference while replacing the 2019 second-round choice we sent to Houston in the Duane Brown trade last year. Getting that second-round pick is the key to this deal. Think of all the talent we've found in second rounds over the years. Golden Tate, Bobby Wagner, Paul Richardson, Justin Britt, Frank Clark and Jarran Reed have either earned or will earn a lucrative second contract. That's impressive, but if we don't do this deal with the Chargers, there's a chance Malik McDowell and Ethan Pocic will be the only players we select in a second round from 2017-19. Think that would go over well with the local radio hosts?
So, while the Chargers' offer wins out, New England did tempt us with Mason. People often overstate our O-line needs without realizing how much Mike Solari's scheme change and some healthy runners will help us, but we obviously could use another young building block up front. Mason would give us that, but he's also going to command a big salary. In the end, that 2019 second-round pick is what we want. Getting that choice and the Chargers' 2020 fourth is the deal for us. -- Mike Sando, playing the part of John Schneider
The verdict from Thomas' agent
Our client would have preferred Dallas. Heck, he told Jason Garrett as much late last season. And the state income tax hit in California versus Texas (where they don't have one) is a tough pill to swallow. But the Chargers look like they have a potentially special situation with that defense, he likes Gus Bradley and it's not as if he has to get used to Pacific time. So let's talk deal.
What we want is to make $32 million over the next two years. Length of the deal doesn't matter. You need to make it longer to prorate the signing bonus and stay under the salary cap? Knock yourselves out. Add four years onto the deal that's already out there, give us a $22 million signing bonus, a $1 million salary in 2018 and a $9 million salary in 2019, all fully guaranteed at signing, and we can work out the rest of the details. That drops Earl's 2018 cap number from $8.5 million (which is what it would be for the Chargers if they traded for him without doing an extension) to $5.4 million. You carry a $13.4 million cap number for 2019, but (A) the cap keeps going up anyway and (B) that's still market value, considering Berry is making $13 million a year. Give us an injury-guaranteed $9 million for 2020 so we can say we got $41 million in guarantees, which is a million more than Berry got, and make that convert to a full guarantee five days after the Super Bowl in 2020. That means you'll have to decide before 2020 free agency whether you want to stick with Earl, who'll be three months shy of his 31st birthday by then, or let him go. We're not stupid. We understand 31 is a heck of a lot different than 29 in NFL years.
We propose adding four years and $56 million onto the $8.5 million he already has coming this year. That's $56 million in "new money," and calling it a four-year extension (that runs through 2022) lets us say he's the highest-paid safety at $14 million a year. But you can sell it as a five-year, $64.5 million deal if you want (the new $56 million plus the $8.5 million he's already getting), and then the average annual salary is $12.9 million, so if you want to tell your fellow owners you didn't set a new safety standard and the deal came in under Berry's, go right ahead. Just as long as you don't mind us putting it out in the media at $14 million.
The key thing for us is the guarantee and the first two years. As long as, at time of signing, he's guaranteed to make $32 million total over 2018 and 2019, we can do this deal and be happy. If you're willing to do that, call the Seahawks, tell them you have a deal, and let's try to bring a Super Bowl trophy to L.A. before the Rams do. -- Dan Graziano, playing the part of Andrew Kessler and David Mulugheta