This post is one of my favorite of the year. For those that don’t know; I spend WAY too much time analyzing, breaking down, and assessing the movement strategies and behaviors of the 1,696 players who play in the National Football League. Thus, this annual blog post for me is the culmination of that work with my own craft and represents a way to recognize the very best player that I witness performing something I have never met anyone more passionate about: movement on a football field.
The BTS Mover of the Year goes to the player who I feel possesses the most well-rounded movement repertoire featuring the frequent display of highly efficient & most effective biomechanical positions.
Additionally, it goes beyond biomechanics though as the sport of football is obviously highly chaotic so the use of robust movement strategies, behavioral characteristics, cognitive-perceptual decision-making, and overall game instinct are also a big piece of the equation. Overall, this recognition is the representation of the most masterful mover in the game of football.
With all that said, the second annual Beyond the Stats Mover of the Year in the NFL is: Earl Thomas, Free Safety of the Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks.
This selection may or may not come as a shock to those of you who are frequent readers of my work. Even though the Seahawks’ All-Everything Defensive Superstar has been a first-team performer on our All-Movement List each of the last two seasons, most people also know my unwavering appreciation (some would say obsession) for the movement patterns and actions which are developed & displayed by offensive players (namely RBs). Of course, this liking resulted in LeSean Shady McCoy being named our first-ever Mover of the Year in 2013.
When I went through my All-Movement Team player-by-player this year, I kept coming back to a number of individuals who each brought a little different movement toolbox to the mix:
• Jamaal Charles – This year added more outside foot planting/cutting of a deeper & more loaded coiled nature while also possessing the highest level of kinesiological patterning/movement mastery for my favorite position
• Antonio Brown – So precise in preprogrammed movement patterns of route running. Fantastic force absorption in multitude of settings. And is the most proficient at his position which includes a host of other athletic movers
• Le’Veon Bell – Drastically improved from a movement standpoint in the last year. Can go from accelerating to decelerating and back to re-accelerating as effectively & efficiently as anyone in the League
• Earl Thomas (my eventual winner) – Movement qualities are endless and breakdown to come below.
Even though each player represented different movement skills as highlighted above, I knew I needed to settle on the guy who was MOST worthy of being considered the best all-around mover in the league. And the thing is, when I look to movement proficiency, I am constantly attempting to qualitatively assess the optimization level of the athlete’s technical movement mastery specific to his individual features and his positional demands.
I could make an argument for each guy based on these movement strengths thus I had to turn to compensations & weaknesses (yes, even those who reside at the highest level of mastery still have deficiencies); after this, things began to become a little more clear as to who the cream of the crop is.
Finally, even though it’s not necessarily about being the fastest or even the most explosive athlete on the field (though those things can really help your cause) when it comes to Earl he is without equal at his position in each of those regards.
Thus, I think you will be as happy as I am with naming Earl Thomas the best of the best in 2014!
The Big Things
While writing this, I recall back to Earl’s rookie year (2010 season); I was watching Minnesota play Seattle (knowing that I have a good number of Vikings each year) and I saw this crazy & quick cat running all over the damn place sniping guys and breaking up passes (if memory serves me he also Pick 6’ed Brett Favre that day).
Two years later, in Adrian Peterson’s MVP campaign, I watched as AD-28 aggressively attacked a gaping hole up the middle, as he did routinely with success so many times that season, attempted to make a move after the second level one-on-one with a ‘unsuspecting’ Safety, only to be wrapped up and rolled to the ground out of nowhere by a bullet rocketing across the screen. That bullet was named Earl Thomas.
In the vaunted Seattle LOB Secondary (aka the Legion of Boom for those of you who obviously haven’t followed football the last 2 years), Earl Thomas stands out even in a group of other stars including fellow Safety Kam Chancellor and Cornerback Richard Sherman. But, it could be argued, Earl Thomas IS the difference maker and key cog of the wheel; mostly because of his supreme movement skills. #29 is truly THAT special.
Whenever I talk to my offensive players across the League, they all agree: Earl Thomas gets to places in tactical situations that other Safeties simply are not capable of. Much of his ability to be in the right place at the right time (sometimes like it’s he’s in two places at once) stems from his ability to accelerate from 0-60 out of any transitional movement or situation at a superhuman level. Though he has a short stride which assists his fast turnover in the early steps of his mechanics, his range is equally as impressive and his willingness to get there is relentless.
Stopping on a Dime
Not only is he able to accelerate to points on the field faster than his position peers, teammates, or offensive opponents, but he is able to stop on a dime and perform tactically-technically in ways that allow him to be in optimal biomechanical positions in diverse situations. When watching him, I can’t help but marvel at his ability to go from being headed any direction, to quickly reading & recognizing the offensive tactical strategy, to throwing on the brakes in a variety of stop positions, and furthermore getting back to where he needs to carry out his tactical duties.
He has the ability to get coiled & loaded before contact with the ground (or other players) in a deep & wide flexed position more often than not. He also can slice in and out of lateral changes of direction in a reflexive crossover reacceleration with his feet closer together. I told you Earl can do it all.
When a ball is in the air or on the ground you can bet that #29 is lurking. The best safeties in history (think guys like Ronnie Lott & Ed Reed) have an ability to make plays in these situations that others cannot and Thomas is no different. Standing 5’10”, he’s not physically-imposing by today’s safety standards, but he seems to have the knack & ability to get up the ladder and high point balls over taller guys as well as laying his body out to grab a falling ball.
Behaving Like an Offensive Player
If he does get the ball in his hands you better watch the F out as it’s quite obvious that not only can he always smell the end zone but he also possesses similar movement traits to that of many offensive players when he does. Earl is quite at home with a ball in his hands and thrives weaving through traffic, performing lunge or crossover cuts, and looking to make an even bigger splash impact play than the turnover itself. This is probably part of the reason that the Seahawks started the season with him returning punts only to remove him from these duties in game 1. However, I would’ve loved to watched what he would’ve inevitably done if given the opportunity.
The Little Things (which really add up to allow the big things to show)
When some look at instinct, they think it’s something inherent. When I look at instinct, I start to point to the level of mastery attained by the athlete to link the physiology with the psychology over time so the athlete is able to behave the way that their position requires out on the field. Though unable to measure his anticipation, perception, and decision-making…in these regards, I believe that Earl Thomas has no equal that I have found or witnessed.
When it comes to any position on the field, it’s not always the primary movement actions that determine successful output for the athlete. Instead, it’s the small transitional movement activities which can allow the athlete to carry out their fundamental movement tasks. In this area, Thomas wastes few steps and little time while always maintaining a position where he is quickly able to get back to putting the pedal to the ground and/or reacting.
Kinesthetic sense, awareness, and balance
Earl’s ability to know & understand where his body is in the context of space and time is so apparent…whether he’s tracking down a ball carrier in the open field, is playing coverage, or is simply carrying out a change of direction activity. You will very, very rarely see him out of position…and the only times that this usually occurs is when he is moving at extraordinarily high paces of pursuit.
Still don’t believe that Earl Thomas is the best mover in the NFL? First of all, how dare you doubt me on this (ha!)?! Second, just watch the tape. If you do (and have any clue whatsoever you are looking at), I am positive you will see exactly what I mean!
Want to see the brilliance even further? Watch the All-22 film of any Seahawks game and tell me if you can keep your eyes off of #29!
Though it’s hard to truly appreciate the movement brilliance of a Safety on a short highlight video, if you want to check out Earl doing his thing be sure to watch last year’s NFL Top 100 production below as well as a longer highlight video I happened to find on YouTube put together by a fan.