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 Carrolls defense (including as a true freshman).
When it came time for the first Carroll-era draft, skeptics assumed the coach would address the teams 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 hes raw like sushi from a coverage perspective, and that would have hurt Carrolls new team as much as Mays efforts helped Carrolls defenses against less-complex college offenses.
In truth, Carroll knew what his detractors didnt that the Seahawks did need a deep cover player, and Mays wasnt 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, NFLDraftScout.com 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 dont 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 teams 12 games, and there doesnt 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 arent alternating. On Wednesday, 49ers head coach Mike Singletary talked about Mays progress.
I think Taylors been a little up and down, like most rookies that come out, Singletary said. But I think hes making good progress. Its one of those things that because of where he is, hes going to be a great player at some point in time. Hes 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 Earls background, and the fact that he came out as a redshirt sophomore, he didnt 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 doesnt 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; hes capable of covering everybody that he needs to cover. He can range deep, he can play one-on-one, and hes 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. Hes had to play a range of things close to the line of scrimmage at times to the deep middle stuff that he didnt do much in his earlier days. Hes got a big learning curve that hes gaining ground on. Hes going to be a tremendous prospect, and a force for us in the future. Hes improved tremendously this year already, but there are still first-time experiences for him; there are still things that are happening for him that hes only maybe seen in walk-throughs. Were just trying to bring him along, and were excited for his play, but we know that hes 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 hed have if he didnt 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 wasnt 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 dont 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 hes going full speed. So, I think thats more his mentality, and its a credit to him.
Meanwhile, Mays has two passes defensed, a forced fumble, and no picks in a defense where hes still finding his way. Carroll wasnt going to present any indictments of Mays performance or how hes being used in San Franciscos defense, but his comments about Mays on Wednesday definitely pointed to the future.
Well, hes got great potential — hes got all the potential in the world, Carroll said. Hes as big and strong and fast as you can get 230 pounds, if hes holding his weight. Hes smart, he loves the game, and he studies like crazy. Hes got a great work ethic and hes going to be a terrific player. How hes gone through that cycle hes played some, then he didnt, back and forth a little bit, which is really what most of the young guys warrant, because theyre learning so much. Its a rare situation when you put your guys in like we did, and just make him play and force him to be out there.”
Its been the ideal situation for Thomas in a number of ways, and thats 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 hes 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.
Hes basically a coach out there on the field, Thomas said of the 15-year veteran. Hes been around so long the longer youve been in this league, and the more plays you see, you just know whats coming. Hes always in my ear, before the play even starts, and were always sitting together in meetings. Cornerback Marcus (Trufant), too. These are Pro Bowlers were talking about, and Im just trying to learn from them.
If hes 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 NFLDraftScout.com 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.”