Sam Mellinger

Why the Chiefs should not trade for Seahawks star Earl Thomas, tempting as it is

Yes, Earl Thomas would instantly strengthen the Chiefs’ greatest weakness. Yes, the frustration is that they still should not trade for him unless the context significantly changes.

This is all happening faster than the Chiefs expected. Their kid quarterback is the best in the league three weeks in, leading an offense that produces viral highlights and 38 points on its worst day so far. Nothing in sports happens faster than football. Windows open and close without warning. You’re a fool if you don’t take advantage.

The Chiefs’ defense is every bit as bad as the Chiefs feared. Dead last in yards, dead last in penalties, dead last in DVOA, dead last in percentage of opponents’ drives that end up in points.

There is a player out there who can help fix this, and the Chiefs have expressed interest.

The Seattle Seahawks are trying to trade Thomas, their star safety. He is that rare non-pass rusher, non-cornerback who even casual fans know — Super Bowl champion, Legion of Boom, three-time All-Pro, named to the NFL Network’s top 100 players each of the last seven years.

He’s a fit, too. Chiefs fans have asked about free agent safety Eric Reid, and he’s a good player, but even without a grievance against the league over whether his unemployment is because of his role in players protesting during the national anthem (of course it is, by the way), he’s a bad football fit. He’s basically a linebacker, much better against the run than the pass, and the Chiefs need a safety who can help against the pass.

Thomas is that man. He is a pure free safety, a centerfielder who’s ranked as elite in coverage every full season since 2013 by Pro Football Focus.

The Chiefs are currently playing Ron Parker, who they cut last year, and Eric Murray, who’s more of a special teams player, at safety. Fans notice every play against a cornerback, and the linebackers have been terrible in coverage and tackling, but the Chiefs’ biggest problem right now is at safety.

That figures to improve when Eric Berry returns, which the Chiefs are hopeful will happen in the next few weeks. Daniel Sorensen is due back in a month or so. He’s unspectacular, but he’s an upgrade over what they have.

Still, Thomas instantly makes the Chiefs better. Their concepts are similar to the Seahawks’, so the transition wouldn’t be rough, either.

Football people like to talk about difference makers. About guys who can change games. Thomas is that man, and now he’s available.

And now come the complications.

The Seahawks are asking for the moon. The Seahawks already turned down a second-round pick from the Cowboys, according to a report by ESPN’s Chris Mortensen. The Seahawks are likely assuming the Chiefs will be toward the back of the draft, meaning the Chiefs would need to offer much more than a second-round pick. Both of their 2019 second-round picks, for instance.

That’s a high price for a 29-year-old safety making $8.5 million in the last year of a contract he’s openly frustrated with.

The Chiefs are protective of those picks, seeing them as part of an opportunity to improve the secondary long-term, to make the most of Patrick Mahomes’ rookie contract.

The Chiefs would, presumably, get a 2020 third- or fourth-round pick in compensation if they traded for Thomas and he signed elsewhere in free agency. That would lessen the hurt on picks but would not squash it, particularly when weighing the benefit of Thomas playing a fraction of a season against draft picks being under cheaper and long-term control.

There’s also the matter of money. The NFLPA reports the Chiefs have $11 million in salary -cap space, but their numbers don’t account for certain bonuses. The Chiefs are close to the limits already in cap space and cash. A trade with the Seahawks would probably need to include another player to offset some of the money. That presents new challenges.

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The Chiefs could always ask to restructure a veteran’s contract to make room for Thomas, but kicking the can down the road is dangerous when Tyreek Hill, Chris Jones and Kendall Fuller will each be eligible for contract extensions this offseason. The Chiefs will need all the money they can get, even if they redo Justin Houston’s contract.

The Cowboys have been consistently mentioned as the most serious trade partner for the Seahawks. They have the cap space, and the need. The Falcons could be another fit. They’ve lost both starting safeties — Keanu Neal to an ACL injury in week 1 and Ricardo Allen to an Achilles last week. Falcons coach Dan Quinn was a coordinator in Seattle for two years. There will be more suitors.

This becomes a game of chicken, then. The Seahawks, understandably, want significantly more in a trade than the 2020 draft pick compensation. The Chiefs, understandably, don’t want to overreach for less than one full season from a veteran who’s already unhappy with his contract.

If the Chiefs can’t figure out a way to add Thomas without significantly harming their future in terms of draft capital or cap space to sign their in-house stars, this is a tempting opportunity they likely will and should pass on.

Maybe that sounds self-destructively conservative, but remember that the Chiefs’ current safety situation is not what it will be in two months, with or without Thomas.

Sorensen will be eligible to return week 6. Berry is going on seven weeks of being day-to-day, but internally the Chiefs are confident he’ll return soon.

Thomas’ range would be a terrific complement to Berry’s abilities closer to the line of scrimmage, but either way the defense should improve — get less bad? — relatively soon.

This is a fluid situation. A lot can change, and immediately. If the price comes down, or the Chiefs get bad news on Berry, this all flips.

But if everything else is equal and the Seahawks are asking for something more than a second-round pick — both of the Chiefs’ second-round picks for next year, for instance — that’s a lot to surrender for less than one season of a man who does not rush the passer.

Besides, as bad as the Chiefs have been on defense, remember that the Eagles won last season’s Super Bowl giving up 613 yards and forcing no punts. The requirements for defenses are different now. You don’t need to be good. Just good enough.

As they are currently constructed, the Chiefs are neither.

But if they really are confident about Berry, they might good enough.

Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.

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