Free-agent safety Earl Thomas could be a target for 49ers, but injury concerns persist
SANTA CLARA - Should the 49ers sign Seattle Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas?
Seems like a no-brainer. The 49ers use Seattle’s defensive scheme, need a free safety and Thomas is a future Hall of Famer who will be a free agent when the NFL’s league year starts on March 13.
Perfect fit, right?
Richard Sherman certainly thinks so. Sherman and Thomas played together on the Seahawks from 2011 to 2017 and were part of Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” - the nickname for the Seahawks’ great defensive backfield. Together, Sherman and Thomas won a Super Bowl in 2014.
“Would I love to play with Earl Thomas?” Sherman asked rhetorically at a Dec. 27 news conference. “I would love to. I would love to have him back in the locker room. But I’m sure he’ll have a plethora of opportunities, and I’m sure we’re going to throw our hat in the ring.”
Meaning the 49ers almost certainly will offer Thomas a contract this offseason, according to Sherman.
Thomas has had an all-time great career. In nine seasons, he has intercepted 28 passes and gone to six Pro Bowls. And when the Seahawks were dominant from 2012 to 2016, many football experts considered Thomas Seattle’s most valuable player on defense, the one who made their scheme work.
Seattle uses a “single-high safety,” meaning one deep safety in the middle of the field, not two. That one deep safety must cover lots of ground, and Thomas always could.
Despite that, doubts intrude themselves. Thomas will be 30 in May, and hasn’t played a full ?16-game schedule since 2015. Thomas broke his left leg twice - once in 2016 and again in 2018 - and has missed 19 games combined the past three seasons.
The average NFL career lasts just 3.3 seasons. Once a player’s body starts to break down, his career typically doesn’t last much longer, especially if that player is 30.
Thomas’ body seems to be breaking down. He has major durability issues.
As do the 49ers. Since the new regime of John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan took over the organization in 2017, 41 players have spent time on in the 49ers’ injured reserve list.
All of those injuries could have been random acts of bad luck. But the 49ers don’t think so.
“(Injuries) have been too big of a deal for two years,” Shanahan said on Dec. 31 at a news conference after the 49ers’ final game of the season. “Injuries are pretty random, but they also affected us huge. So, that’s something that we definitely have to look at from all angles and put a lot of time into.”
In other words, the 49ers must find some way to minimize injuries.
Lynch agrees. “There’s an old adage in football - your best ability is availability,” he said while sitting next to Shanahan. “We haven’t had a lot of guys available and that’s something we’re looking into hard. We will continue to do that because it’s something that needs to change. I don’t think anyone is to blame. We have been studying it. We will continue to and try to get a handle on that.”
Despite what Lynch said, the 49ers blamed strength and conditioning coach Ray Wright and head athletic trainer Jeff Ferguson. They fired them both this January, although Ferguson had been with the 49ers since 2006 - a decade before their injury issues became so problematic.
Another way to make the roster more durable and reduce injuries is to sign fewer injured players. Since 2017, the 49ers have acquired or extended contracts of 20 players who missed at least one game due to injury the previous season. And of those 20 players, 15 have missed at least one game due to injury with the 49ers, or have gotten benched or released.
Here are those 15 players:
1. Cornerback K’Waun Williams signed in 2017 to be the 49ers’ starting slot cornerback after missing all of 2016 with an ankle injury that required surgery. Since signing with the 49ers, Williams has missed four games with quad and knee injuries.
2. Cornerback/safety Jimmie Ward. The 49ers picked up the fifth-year option of his rookie contract in 2017 after he sat out five games the previous season. Since 2017, Ward has missed 16 games with a strained hamstring and two fractured forearms.
3. Linebacker Malcolm Smith signed in 2017 to be the 49ers’ starting middle linebacker after missing one game for the Oakland Raiders the previous season. Since 2017, Smith has torn his pectoral muscle, strained his Achilles and missed 20 games.
4. Defensive tackle Earl Mitchell signed in 2017 to be the 49ers’ starting nose tackle after missing seven games for the Miami Dolphins the previous season. Since 2017, Mitchell has been benched and the 49ers plan to release him this offseason.