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Analysis: Earl Thomas is gone, so what now for the Seahawks, and how will he be remembered?

UPDATED: Thu., March 14, 2019, 11:21 p.m.

Seattle Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas walks on the field during the first half  against the Arizona Cardinals on  Dec. 31, 2017, in Seattle. (John Froschauer / AP)
Seattle Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas walks on the field during the first half against the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 31, 2017, in Seattle. (John Froschauer / AP)
By Bob Condotta Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Earl Thomas is officially gone, off to Baltimore to continue his NFL Hall of Fame career with the Ravens.

So what now for the Seahawks?

Glad you asked. Here are three questions left hanging in the wake of the departure of the last founding member of the Legion of Boom to play in a game for the Seahawks and our attempt at some answers.

Who steps in for Thomas?: Thomas, remember, missed the last 12 games of last season after suffering a broken leg, so Seattle has already become used to life without Earl, something it has also been preparing for since the 2017 draft, when it selected three players who could play safety.

Seattle could still add a safety in free agency, but the Seahawks haven’t made an addition despite knowing for months Thomas would not be back. The Seahawks still could – there’s a deep group of free-agent safeties that remains such as Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Tre Boston and Jimmie Ward.

Seattle could be waiting things out, hoping to pounce late and get a good bargain – although if they wanted to make a splash, maybe they could go get Eric Berry, who was released by the Chiefs on Wednesday just a few minutes after Baltimore announced Thomas’ signing.

But it won’t be a surprise if any addition Seattle makes is more along the lines of the Maurice Alexander signing last year. The Seahawks appear ready to go with the same trio that ended last season manning the two spots – Bradley McDougald, Tedric Thompson and Delano Hill, the latter two 2017 draft picks selected with the idea that they would someday form a new version of the Legion of Boom, even if it can never be replicated.

McDougald and Thompson were the primary safety duo last season after Thomas went down, but McDougald and Hill started the last two games – McDougald at free and Hill at strong – and the Seahawks could go that route in 2019.

That McDougald can play either spot well means Seattle can pair him with whichever of Hill or Thompson it sees as better. Shalom Luani also remains on the roster and the Seahawks late last season also signed Marwin Evans, who played for Green Bay in 2016 and 2017. While adding someone at the spot could happen, the Seahawks could also view themselves as having a decent set of five with which to go into the season.

While some might question how well the Seahawks played last year without Thomas (more on that below), they have expressed confidence in Thompson and Hill at every turn.

Coach Pete Carroll talked enthusiastically of Hill at the NFL combine last month when mentioning how he anticipated he team’s young players to be much better in 2019.

“You are hoping that guys all are better, they are smarter they are aware,” Carroll said. “Think of a guy like Delano. He is just going to be so much better prepared and he will just eliminate errors and eliminate miscues and little hesitations and stuff like that. You get a little better in a lot of spots, you get better immensely.”

The Seahawks, though, will indeed need better play out of their safety spot. As NFL numbers guru Warren Sharp noted Wednesday, the Seahawks have been a vastly different defense the last three years when they’ve had Thomas and when they’ve been without him (he also missed five games in 2016 with an injury and two in 2017).

Per Sharp, Seattle allowed a passer rating of 81 with Thomas, lowest in the NFL, but 100 without him, second worst.

Maybe more telling is that Seattle allowed an average of 6.8 yards per pass attempt with Thomas, fourth lowest in the NFL, and 7.9 without him, the fourth worst.

That was Thomas’ greatest value to the Seahawks – his ability to prevent big plays.

Opponents will have an offseason to study film of what Seattle’s defense looks like without Thomas knowing he won’t return.

So did the Seahawks lose one of the best players in franchise history for nothing?: Not necessarily.

The NFL has a system for rewarding compensatory draft picks for teams that suffer a net loss of unrestricted free agents.

Thomas would equate to a third-round pick in 2020 at the moment – the highest that can be awarded.

And via Nick Korte of OvertheCap.com, Seattle at the moment would qualify for four picks in 2020, the maximum one team can get, in the third, fourth and sixth rounds and another in the sixth or seventh for losing Thomas as well as J.R. Sweezy, Justin Coleman, Brett Hundley, Mike Davis and Shamar Stephen.

But those picks can be canceled out by future signings (though Korte wrote that the signing of kicker Jason Myers would not cancel out any of the 2020 picks yet).

That’s what happened to Seattle last year when it lost the comp picks they could have received for losing the likes of Jimmy Graham and Paul Richardson when they then signed the likes of Ed Dickson and Barkevious Mingo.

The thought is Seattle may be trying to get as many comp picks as it can this year, though, especially with only four picks – at the moment, anyway – in the 2019 draft.

Something to keep in mind as you monitor the Seahawks’ free-agent activity over the next week or so.

Will the Seahawks someday honor Thomas?: By any measure, Thomas is one of the top 10 or so players in franchise history, if not in the top five – his six Pro Bowls as a Seahawk are topped only by Steve Largent, Walter Jones and Cortez Kennedy.

All three of those players are also among the four who have had their numbers retired by the team, the other being Kenny Easley.

All four played all of their careers with the Seahawks, unlike some of the players who have joined those four in the team’s Ring of Honor, such as Dave Krieg and Jim Zorn.

So does that mean the Seahawks won’t retire the numbers of Thomas or Richard Sherman, who has gone on to play for the 49ers?

Maybe, especially since retiring numbers is tricky in a sport in which players have to wear specific numbers based on the primary position they play, though precedents are made to be broken, and as Easley’s situation showed, time heals all wounds.

The Ring of Honor, though, is a no-brainer, not only for Thomas but also for Sherman and Kam Chancellor.

Here’s a thought – when the Seahawks inevitably honor them, do it together, and even if they don’t officially retire any or all of their numbers, hang a banner for the Legion of Boom.

Never in Seattle sports history has a trio of players been so intertwined, nor has any group had such an identifiable and era-defining nickname.

Sort of like the Beatles, they were great individually but even better together, which seems the most fitting way to honor their legacy.

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