Inside the Earl Thomas-Ravens divorce and what’s next for both sides

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The facts: On Friday at Ravens practice, starting strong safety Chuck Clark and free safety Earl Thomas had to be separated by teammates and coaches, per Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com. It lasted a while, and they kept trying to get at each other, and a helmet was thrown, and Clark was kicked out of practice with 10 minutes left. Now, training-camp fights are not that strange; they happen every week. I’ve seen a lot of them over the years. Can’t say I’ve seen many fights between two players from the same position group, never mind two starters at the interchangeable safety positions. In fact, I do not recall seeing two players from the same position get into it in camp. It’s potentially cancerous for two guys who have to sit in the same meetings every day. The Ravens, after considering it for the next 36 hours (and after consulting with the team’s veteran players council), fired Thomas on Sunday morning.

So in the span of 23 months, one of the best safeties of his era, a man who will one day get serious consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, has been involved in three untoward incidents. After breaking his leg as a Seattle safety in 2018 in Dallas, he gave Seahawks coach Pete Carroll the finger as he left the field, apparently upset that the team wouldn’t give him a new contract. Last April, his wife was arrested for assault in Texas; TMZ reported she found Earl and his brother in bed with another woman and threatened to shoot Earl in the head. And now the altercation on the Ravens’ practice field with a fellow leader in the secondary.

A few things to know about the Thomas release:

• He was not well-liked by his teammates. He had a pattern of being late, and in a recent practice, he made multiple assignment errors, causing defensive teammates to confront him about his preparedness. He missed at least one walk-through with no valid excuse. When the incident at Friday’s practice happened, very few if any teammates came to his defense. Teammates backed Clark, the significantly lesser name.

• The money will hurt Baltimore—a $15-million cap charge this year and $10 million next year for Thomas to not play for them, unless they win a grievance to get some of the money back.

• The grievance process will be fascinating. The union represents Thomas, but also Chuck Clark—and also the rest of the Ravens who are not on Thomas’ side. What if more comes out about this dispute that shows Clark to clearly be the aggrieved victim, for instance? Can the NFLPA stand up for both Thomas and his apparent sworn enemy? This will be a fascinating case to follow.

For the Seahawks and Ravens to both cut ties with Thomas is notable in the first place. Seattle in noteworthy for looking the other way on problem players. Baltimore less so—but it’s notable that these two teams have been sniffing around problematic free-agent receiver Antonio Brown. In both places, if you can play, you can survive the messes you make. Without question, if this was a one-time event in Baltimore, it’s likely Ravens coach John Harbaugh and GM Eric DeCosta could have dismissed this as a heat-of-battle thing, moved on and made peace. The fact that Thomas got fired Sunday, when he’s still playing top-level safety and the Ravens are serious Super Bowl contenders, says everything you need to know: Thomas was a problem and the Ravens just got tired of it.

Finally, what do these four men have in common: Harbaugh, DeCosta, Carroll and Seattle GM John Schneider? They’re four people at the top of their professions. Schneider and DeCosta are top 10 NFL GMs, Harbaugh and Carroll top 10 NFL coaches. Answer: All four were part of decisions that ridded teams of Earl Thomas.

Could all four be wrong? Doubt it sincerely. Thomas is a great player, and he’ll likely get another chance, soon. (Dallas is interested, per Adam Schefter.) But Baltimore wanted Thomas gone so much that the Ravens were willing to take a disastrous $15-million cap hit by doing it now. Buyer beware with Thomas.

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here.

Super Bowl LVII storylines: Defending Mahomes, Hurts

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The three things you need to know about Super Bowl LVII, per Next Gen Stats, that I think could play big parts in who wins:

The Eagles do not need to blitz to affect Patrick Mahomes. This is the craziest thing about a formidable Philadelphia front: Of their league-best 77 sacks in 19 games, including playoffs, 57 came when the Eagles rushed four players. That means 74 percent of their sacks have come on non-blitzes. Which, of course, means that Mahomes will likely most often be trying to complete his passes with a battered receiving corps against seven men in coverage. Tough duty for even a great one like Mahomes. No team in the seven-year history of Next Gen Stats has had such success rushing the quarterback without blitzing as the ‘22 Eagles.

Kansas City must be considering offensive alternatives with its beat-up receiver corps. Much has been said about the lack of Tyreek Hill in this offense, and it’s remarkable that the team has been so explosive—and Mahomes so productive—with all the new receivers in his arsenal. New, and not as fast. In 2018 through ’21, with Hill onboard, Mahomes threw 47 “deep TD passes,” defined as passes that traveled at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. In 2022, minus Hill, Mahomes threw one. We’ve seen all year that Mahomes is far more of an intermediate thrower this year, and he’s been great at it. One more NGS nugget that could come into play: Kansas City has scored 35 touchdowns this year—most in the NFL—with two tight ends on the field. If Travis Kelce isn’t a 100-yard factor in this game, I’ll be surprised.

Steve Spagnuolo beat the 18-0 Patriots with an unpredictable pass-rush in the 2007 season. Will he blitz Jalen Hurts in the same way in Super Bowl LVII? Hurts, per Next Gen, had the sixth-worst success rate against the blitz this season. His success rate is 47.7 percent against non-blitzes. One thing Hurts has going for him is the best offensive line in football, a line well-suited to defend against great rushers. He’ll need it against Chris Jones and Frank Clark.

Lots of great angles in this tight, competitive matchup. Those are just three.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

Concrete takeaways from Broncos’ deal with Sean Payton

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The late Giants’ GM, George Young, once had a great truism about coaching searches: “They’re never done till they’re done.” Reporters in this time of intense media would be wise to keep that in mind.

Reading about the Denver job in the two weeks before the hire of Sean Payton last week left these impressions: He wouldn’t want the job because of a conflict with an owner. Or he had a bad interview, didn’t have a second interview as others did, and was out of the running. Or Broncos owners never wanted Payton as their coach. Or the Broncos wanted DeMeco Ryans and got jilted, and so went to Payton as a fallback.

For someone so unwanted as Payton, it seems funny Denver traded first- and second-round draft choices (getting a third- in return) to New Orleans for Payton, then made him one of the highest-paid coaches in NFL history, with a five-year deal worth at least $18 million a year. The Broncos once were interested in Jim Harbaugh and then Ryans—neither of whom would require draft-choice compensation, and neither of whom would cost upwards of $18 millon a year. But things change during the process of looking for a coach, so it’s wise to not speak in absolutes till it’s over.

A few things we do know about the Payton deal with Denver:

  • Denver talked with Saints GM Mickey Loomis about two deals for Payton, who required compensation because he was still under contract to New Orleans: a first-round pick and a third-round pick, or a first-rounder and second-rounder, with the Broncos getting a third-rounder in return. Denver wanted the second option, because it would leave them with an equal number of day-two picks instead of being down one. Officially, Denver trades the 30th pick this year and a second-round pick in 2024 and gets a third-round pick in 2024 in return.
  • Payton had the best chance of turning Russell Wilson around. The first time I ever met Wilson, at Seahawks training camp, he said to me: “Who’s taller—me or Drew [Brees]?” I think he was genuinely curious about it. (I’d guess Wilson, by a fraction.) But Wilson and Brees have gotten to be friends, and Wilson has great admiration for him. So, Wilson’s at a low point after his disastrous first year in Denver. He wanted Payton to get the job, and he’s willing to be coached hard by him. Wilson has been reaching out to Brees to get a preview of coming attractions. History lesson: Brees was a free agent coming off shoulder surgery in 2006, and Miami was iffy on signing him because of his shoulder, and the Saints went after him hard. Brees came under Payton’s wing with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. Sound familiar?
  • The presence in the interview process of minority Broncos owner Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. Secretary of State, was a plus. Payton was impressed by her, and one of the majority owners, Greg Penner. He thinks he’ll be able to form the kind of close relationship with GM George Paton that he had with Loomis, who remains one of his best friends, in New Orleans.
  • Payton is wide open about his defensive staff, and won’t be in a hurry to fill it out. He’ll take his time to find a coordinator he thinks he’ll mesh with. He won’t be afraid to pick a strong-minded tough guy like Brian Flores, who he’s scheduled to interview. The defensive coordinator of the Broncos, as Dennis Allen was under Payton in New Orleans, is going to be the head coach of the defense.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column