What’s going on with Earl Thomas? Will he find new NFL team in 2021?

NFL safety Earl Thomas
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Earl Thomas found himself in Houston in early September, preparing for his first workout with an NFL team since his abrupt release from the Baltimore Ravens in August.

But that workout never materialized, with NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reporting the future Hall of Famer was sent home with nothing more than an off-site physical to mark the experience. 

According to Rapoport, the Texans brought Thomas in to gauge his mindset and “see him up close.” Ultimately, Houston let him leave without a deal. It was, at least in part, because they didn’t think the veteran fit their team and the locker room.

Texans coach Bill O’Brien, since fired, left open the possibility of signing Thomas down the road, but that never came to pass. Thomas has essentially been blackballed by NFL teams, having not received as much as an offer, tryout or workout since that meeting with Houston, at least as far as has been reported. Meanwhile, the Texans are sacrificing their first-round pick to Miami this year, and badly need quality players for a rebuild.

Thomas can still be an impactful player. Last year, he made his seventh Pro Bowl in 10 seasons. He showed off a new wrinkle to his game in the Ravens’ scheme, with defensive coordinator Don Martindale sending him on blitzes 54 times, fifth-highest among defensive backs. He still graded out as an effective coverage safety, too, and was PFF’s No. 7-ranked safety heading into this season.

The idea that Thomas couldn’t help any team with a coach on the hot seat — a la Houston’s situation earlier in the 2020 campaign — or even a playoff contender at this point seems illogical. On the other hand, with almost a full season away from the game, the risk might outweigh the reward at this point for someone to bring Thomas aboard before the postseason kicks off. His unceremonious exit from Baltimore is a big reason why.

Revisiting the Earl Thomas-Ravens breakup

Taking into account previous reports and that the former “Legion of Boom” member hasn’t shown a significant skill drop-off, it’s fair to assume that his tenure and early exit with the Ravens is the main reason we’ve yet to see him this season.

Thomas was released unceremoniously from the team after he reportedly punched teammate Chuck Clark in training camp. Here’s a quick summary from an original ESPN report to refresh your memory:

“The breaking point came Friday in the team’s fourth training camp practice of the year. After Thomas blew a coverage, Clark angrily ripped off his helmet and threw it to the ground. Thomas then punched Clark, a source said. Both players were separated by teammates and coaches. It’s unusual for two players in the same position group to fight.”

Thomas also angered Ravens’ management with excessive tardiness or outright absence from meetings, according to the NFL Network’s Mike Silver. 

“They warned him after he got fined repeatedly,” Silver reported. “Look, at some point this is going to be conduct detrimental. That’s going to affect your contract. Things picked up right where they left off at this training camp, and not in a good way.”

Whether it was missing team meetings or some other, larger issue at play, his fight with Clark was apparently the last straw for the Ravens. Baltimore cut Thomas just one season into his four-year, $55-million deal, citing “personal conduct that has adversely affected” the team.

It’s just such a bizarre turn for one of the NFL’s premier players. Thomas won a Super Bowl in Seattle, and bird-flipping aside, he was still seen as a leader for a team with title aspirations. The Ravens’ communication team even made an entire video about the safety’s leadership skills a month after his signing. Check out this quote from it:

When the Ravens signed safety Earl Thomas last month, everyone talked about how he was such a great leader. Everyone knows that he’s a playmaker on the field, but behind the scenes, that leadership is not something to overlook.

Will Earl Thomas find a new team in 2021?

The Texans, 49ers and Cowboys were all teams to watch in the race to sign Thomas upon his initial release, per NFL Network. However, Mike McCarthy and Kyle Shanahan both made it clear their teams would stand pat after Thomas hit the open market.

With the Texans passing on Thomas, the focus once again shifts toward Jerry Jones. Despite his coach seemingly backing off the star safety, we know who runs things in Dallas. Thomas, who grew up in Texas, has been rather vocal about his desire to play for the Cowboys. And Jerry, ever the entertainer, won’t shut down the idea. When asked on a radio station about signing Thomas earlier this season, the Cowboys owner made headlines. 

“I’m aware Thomas is out there,” Jones said. “I also am interested at this juncture in improving this team now. Right now.”

Thomas would be an immediate boon to a leaky secondary whose pass defense only ranks in the NFL’s top 10 because the Cowboys can’t stop an opponent’s rushing attack whatsoever. Entering Week 16, Dallas yields a league-worst 161.8 yards per game on the ground.

Not only is he a dynamic player in coverage, but Thomas can also lay the lumber versus the run. With such a high football IQ and leadership intangibles that weren’t really called into question until his recent unraveling, perhaps Thomas could make the most of a second chance in the Lone Star State and help Dallas salvage some respectability as first-year coach Mike McCarthy’s tenure is already resulting in many fans calling for him to be fired.

If relations weren’t so broken with the Seahawks, it might’ve been possible to see Thomas land there. Alas, that won’t be the case, and as it stands, Seattle’s defense is playing far better since upgrading its pass rush with defensive end Carlos Dunlap and Jamal Adams’ return to health. The whole point of trading for Adams in the first place was to compensate for what the defensive backfield was missing when Thomas left the scene.

Earl Thomas to the Las Vegas Raiders?

Earl Thomas to the Las Vegas Raiders in 2021?
Jan 25, 2020; Kissimmee, Florida, USA; Baltimore Ravens safety Earl Thomas (29) during AFC Practice at ESPN Wide World of Sports. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Other than the Cowboys, here’s another team to watch for: the Las Vegas Raiders. To be clear, this is completely speculative, yet it makes a lot of sense on paper.

Head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock haven’t shied away from taking on players with character concerns in the past. They somehow navigated the chaos involving Antonio Brown, felt it right to sign dirty linebacker Vontaze Burfict and are really hurting on defense in 2020.

A big reason why Las Vegas doesn’t have a better record than 7-7 is the consistent inability to stop adversaries from scoring. Ranking 21st in DVOA against the pass and dead-last versus the run in Football Outsiders’ data, there’s no area where the unit succeeds. Plus, coordinator Paul Guenther was fired late in the season.

The Raiders handed the Kansas City Chiefs their only loss and nearly beat the reigning champs again, only to lose in a 35-31 shootout. Gruden is a great coach in need of a defense. Thomas just needs one team to fall in love with him, and Las Vegas could be an ideal destination for him for the 2021 season as Las Vegas turns over every stone to make serious upgrades on the defensive side of the ball.