BY Doug Farrar 04:49PM 12/08/2010

Among rookie safeties, Thomas holds the lead

As their rookie seasons progress, Earl Thomas starts to stand apart, and Taylor Mays continues to struggle with a starting role

Earl Thomas reads and reacts to Leon Washington's moves in practice (Rod Mar/Seattle Seahawks)

Perhaps the one overriding concept which underscored the idea that the Pete Carroll who took over the Seahawks would not be the same Pete Carroll who ran the USC Trojans for a decade was the fact that that there would be no “scholarships,” real or implied, for any USC alums. This was true for players already in the NFL, such as LenDale White and Lawrence Jackson when their efforts were found wanting, and it was true for safety Taylor Mays, the young man who started four years in Carroll’s defense (including as a true freshman). 

When it came time for the first Carroll-era draft, skeptics assumed the coach would address the team’s need for a defender who could truly play “center field” in the secondary with Mays, as opposed to a more polished player. Mays’ athleticism has always been off the charts, but he’s raw like sushi from a coverage perspective, and that would have hurt Carroll’s new team as much as Mays’ efforts helped Carroll’s defenses against less-complex college offenses. 

In truth, Carroll knew what his detractors didn’t – that the Seahawks did need a deep cover player, and Mays wasn’t the guy. Instead, Carroll and general manager John Schneider had their eyes on Texas safety Earl Thomas, a young (born in May of 1989) player with the kind of coverage skills uncommon to safeties of any stripe. In fact, had Thomas ranked as the second-best draft-eligible cornerback, behind Florida alum and current Cleveland Browns defender Joe Haden. Seattle took Thomas 14th overall with the second of their two first-round picks, and Carroll talked right away about Thomas’ potential as a range defender – that rare commodity who could play sideline-to-sideline and up to 30 yards back. 

Fast-forward to half a year later. While Mays is struggling for the 49ers team that the Seahawks will face Sunday, Thomas is thriving to an unusual degree. Teams don’t usually give deep cover defenders the whole playbook from day one, but Thomas is one of just seven Seahawks this season to start each of the team’s 12 games, and there doesn’t seem to be any “rookie wall” in sight. 

Mays, on the other hand, has had issues with coverage and overall fundamentals since the 49ers selected him with the 17th pick in the second round, leaving him low on the depth chart behind Reggie Smith when he and Smith aren’t alternating. On Wednesday, 49ers head coach Mike Singletary talked about Mays’ progress. 

“I think Taylor’s been a little up and down, like most rookies that come out,” Singletary said. “But I think he’s making good progress. It’s one of those things that because of where he is, he’s going to be a great player at some point in time. He’s just not there right now.” 

Mere minutes later, Carroll was talking to local reporters about the player Thomas has become. “Really, when you look at Earl’s background, and the fact that he came out as a redshirt sophomore, he didn’t play a lot of football his first year. He played just two years of college football at Texas and then jumped in with us. He doesn’t have the fourth year, the fifth year, and all those (spring practices) that you get. So, he has a lot of stuff that he can learn. He can do everything; he’s capable of covering everybody that he needs to cover. He can range deep, he can play one-on-one, and he’s a very tenacious football player in general. He attacks things really well, really good instincts, and really marvelous speed that he has. 

“We had a lot of things we had to cover, because we do things differently than they did in college – their system was much different than ours. He’s had to play a range of things – close to the line of scrimmage at times to the deep middle stuff that he didn’t do much in his earlier days. He’s got a big learning curve that he’s gaining ground on. He’s going to be a tremendous prospect, and a force for us in the future. He’s improved tremendously this year already, but there are still first-time experiences for him; there are still things that are happening for him that he’s only maybe seen in walk-throughs. We’re just trying to bring him along, and we’re excited for his play, but we know that he’s really going to get better.” 

The stats tell the story. Thomas has five interceptions, tying the team rookie record and making observers wonder how many he’d have if he didn’t barely miss errant quarterback throws that few players in his position could even get to. He adds to the pick total with seven passes defensed and 64 tackles (54) solo. Basically, if Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh wasn’t turning the 2010 Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign into a laugher with his absolutely dominant performance, Thomas would – and should – get serious consideration. Unfortunately, deep safeties do a lot of things that don’t even show up on TV, and the casual viewer may not understand how rare it is for a rookie playing Thomas’ position to succeed through a full season without any noticeable dips in performance. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, however, knows just how much of a difference it makes. 

“It is amazing, because a lot of times, you see rookies go through a little bit of a slump,” Bradley said. “But I think it carries over – I mentioned to him last week that at practice, he goes the same speed all the time. We could go through a walk-through and he’s going full speed. So, I think that’s more his mentality, and it’s a credit to him.” 

Meanwhile, Mays has two passes defensed, a forced fumble, and no picks in a defense where he’s still finding his way. Carroll wasn’t going to present any indictments of Mays’ performance or how he’s being used in San Francisco’s defense, but his comments about Mays on Wednesday definitely pointed to the future. 

“Well, he’s got great potential — he’s got all the potential in the world,” Carroll said. “He’s as big and strong and fast as you can get – 230 pounds, if he’s holding his weight. He’s smart, he loves the game, and he studies like crazy. He’s got a great work ethic and he’s going to be a terrific player. How he’s gone through that cycle – he’s played some, then he didn’t, back and forth a little bit, which is really what most of the young guys warrant, because they’re learning so much. It’s a rare situation when you put your guys in like we did, and just make him play … and ‘force’ him to be out there.”

It’s been the ideal situation for Thomas in a number of ways, and that’s been the difference for this particular draft pick. For everything Thomas brings to the table, the Seahawks have met him halfway – with a set of schemes complementary to his skill set, with a coaching shaff that was ready to put unusual faith in him, and with a teammate in Lawyer Milloy who was more than willing to (one might say insistent on) bring him along the right way. Thomas said that he’s always played to lead, and that he could the concept of rookie barriers to be completely unacceptable from the first day he hit an NFL practice field. And as for Milloy, Thomas said that what the veteran provides is simply invaluable. In return, Thomas’ range has taken Milloy off the bench and straight into a career revival. 

“He’s basically a coach out there on the field,” Thomas said of the 15-year veteran. “He’s been around so long … the longer you’ve been in this league, and the more plays you see, you just know what’s coming. He’s always in my ear, before the play even starts, and we’re always sitting together in meetings. Cornerback Marcus (Trufant), too. These are Pro Bowlers we’re talking about, and I’m just trying to learn from them.” 

If he’s not careful, Earl Thomas will soon join their number. For Taylor Mays, it will be a longer (and more traditional) journey.

Note: We asked Rob Rang, Senior Draft Analyst for the indispensable website, for his take on the two players and their NFL futures. Here’s what Rob had to add:

“Though they’re each safeties, Earl Thomas and Taylor Mays are actually quite different players. Each has progressed as expected so far in their rookie seasons. 

“Thomas proved himself to be a quite a ballhawk at the University of Texas, ranking 11th on Texas’ all-time list with ten interceptions despite leaving for the NFL with two seasons of eligibility remaining. Thomas’ instincts, agility, straight-line speed and ball skills have translated well to the pro game, as he leads all free safeties with five interceptions through the first 13 weeks of the season. This despite the fact that he played strong safety while at Texas. 

“Mays’ unbelievable size/speed combination earned him plenty of hype, but he dropped on draft day as scouts had concerns about his coverage ability and lack of ball skills — key components of success to remain at the free safety position he manned while with the Trojans. Mays, in fact, had only half of Thomas’ interceptions (five) despite starting twice as long (four years). Not surprisingly, Mays has yet to make his first NFL interception. Though not a ballhawk, Mays does provide an explosive presence over the middle, making him an ideal strong safety.”