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Earl Thomas discusses evolution of the safety position

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Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:

» A pass-rushing duo that could spark a surprise Super Bowl run.

» Earl Thomas on the profound evolution of the safety position in recent years.

But first, a discussion with Earl Thomas about the challenges of being a safety in today's NFL ...

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THE REBUTTAL: Earl Thomas discusses evolution at the safety position.

Early in the season, I got a chance to catch up with Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas to discuss the evolution of the position. Here's my conversation with the three-time First-Team All-Pro:

The league is shifting to where teams are placing a premium on finding playmaking safeties. What does a safety need to be able to do to be a dominant player in today's NFL?

Earl Thomas: "He needs to really understand the offense. He needs to know personnel. He needs to be a great communicator. He needs to see the big picture of everything that's going on. He's really like a point guard in the back end."

We are seeing more of these basketball-like athletes at tight end. What kind of challenges do they present to safeties?

ET: "Just isolation. When you have a big tight end, like a Greg Olsen or a Jimmy Graham, the offensive coordinator is going to try to find matchups and ways where they can get him the ball in one-on-ones with a linebacker, free safety or strong safety. It's big deal."

Do you believe it is more important for an elite safety to be able to cover or drop into the box and act as "banger"?

ET: "I believe you have to be versatile. I don't think you can be one-dimensional. If you are one-dimensional, you need to be spectacular at what you do and you must do it week in and week out. You have to be interchangeable in this league."

Turnovers are such a big part of the game. When you're looking at other safeties in the league, do you prefer ballhawks and guys who can punch the ball out or safeties who are solid in the middle and don't give up big plays?

ET: "Of course I like the guys who are ballhawks, but as a free safety, you have to understand situations. You have to be aware when you can go for it or when you need to play it safe. It's a balance."

MY TAKE

I loved getting Thomas' take on the safety position. He is not only one of my favorite players at the position, but he is a unique playmaker with a knack for making big plays. I wanted to get his perspective on playing in the middle of the field because it is so hard to find a free safety with ballhawking skills and an enforcer's mentality.

Reflecting on our conversation, I believe his point on versatility is in line with the thinking within the coaching and scouting community. NFL people are placing a greater emphasis on acquiring safeties capable of covering slot receivers and tight ends on passing downs, while also acting as "box defenders" against the run. Although it is hard to find those special players with a diverse set of skills to fit the job description, the emergence of guys like Thomas, Eric Berry and Tyrann Mathieu have changed the way the game is played in the secondary. Teams are swapping out "toy soldiers" (limited athletes) for athletic playmakers between the hashes. These guys are not only ballhawks, but they are enforcers with an intense desire to knock the taste out of the mouth of anyone willing to venture between the hashes.

Despite the league's emphasis on reducing big hits on defenseless receiver, the NFL remains a league where each and every team seeks a monster in the middle to discourage quarterbacks and playmakers from attacking between the hashes. When that player is also able to snag picks or deliver turnovers, it can help a defense go from good to great in a hurry.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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