The last time we saw Earl Thomas, he was propped up on a medical cart getting whisked away from the field in a scene that unfortunately felt all too familiar; a superstar athlete, playing out the final year of his contract before he can hit free agency for what will likely be his last chance to command a monster deal, suffering a devastating season-ending injury that could impact his ability to secure big-time money in the offseason.

It felt all too familiar except for one small part. Thomas, who spent the offseason embroiled in a contract standoff and the beginning portion of the season as the subject of trade rumors, directed his middle figure at the Seahawks’ sideline as the cart drove him away.

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And with that, Thomas’ career with the Seahawks ended. Next week, Thomas will officially become a free agent — and a pretty darn good one. 

Even though the safety market is saturated with talented footballers, many of whom are younger than him, Thomas (nearly 30) will still be desired by teams that fancy themselves as contenders in the short term. Based on talent alone, Thomas is the best free safety on the market. When healthy, he’s still the best free safety in football, capable of taking away the deep middle portion of the field all by himself. His range is incredible. And his playmaking skills are undeniable. He’s a fit on every defense. 

For those concerned by an impending decline given his age, well, it hasn’t happened yet. Before he went down with a broken leg, Thomas was providing a very convincing argument that training camp and the preseason are meaningless for established stars. In four games, he racked up three interceptions. 

He’ll be wanted. And he probably won’t be cheap. According to CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora, Thomas is “seeking $13M per year, or more, despite his recent injury history, and he is expected to get darn close to it.”

So who might be the one to pay Thomas? Glad you asked. Basically, any contender that doesn’t already have a young budding talent at free safety or isn’t extremely limited in cap space should be in the mix. 

The Bears, with Eddie Jackson and roughly $15.6 million in available cap space, will not be in the running even though they’re in the middle of their Super Bowl window. The Colts, having already drafted Malik Hooker, likely won’t be in the mix either even though they’re contenders with the most cap space in football. The Texans, who have a ton of cap space and might lose Tyrann Mathieu in free agency, watched Justin Reid shine as a deep safety during his rookie season, which makes a Thomas signing unlikely. 

Below, you’ll find 11 teams that could be landing spots for Thomas.

11. New England Patriots

This is more of a fantasy destination than a realistic destination, but fantasizing about the league’s best safety joining forces with the Patriots — more specifically, Bill Belichick — is fun. Here’s how it could happen.

While safety Devin McCourty has said he will return for the 2019 season, the Patriots can save almost $10 million against the cap by cutting him, per Spotrac. They’re more likely to use their available cap space on impending free agent Trey Flowers given his importance to the defensive front, but Flowers will have a chance to sign a lucrative deal in free agency. If Flowers walks on over to some other team that’s willing to overpay him, the Patriots will have some extra money to play around with. As it stands, they have $20 million in available cap space. If Thomas can’t find the lucrative deal he wants, he might instead prioritize landing with a contender. Obviously, there’s no bigger contender than the Patriots.

Will it happen? Probably not. I don’t see the Patriots paying a soon-to-be 30-year-old safety.

10. Los Angeles Rams

The Rams don’t stick out as an obvious landing spot, but they’ve shown a willingness to make bold acquisitions in pursuit of a championship while Jared Goff is on his rookie deal. Maybe they’ll want to commit their money to impending free agent safety LaMarcus Joyner, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, or pass rusher Dante Fowler. If they don’t, Thomas would be the kind of signing that might just push them over the top a year after falling short in the Super Bowl.

It’s probably unlikely. But if Thomas fails to find the expensive offers he’s looking for, don’t rule it out entirely. The Rams’ penchant for splashy moves makes them a sleeper.  

9. Denver Broncos

With $36 million in available cap space, the Broncos have the money. Vic Fangio, after leaving Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos (also a free agent) in Chicago, could seek an upgrade over the younger Justin Simmons. It’s possible. The Broncos just traded for Joe Flacco. They wouldn’t have done that if they thought they were in the process of a full-on rebuild. I still think it’s more likely Fangio will want to develop Simmons instead of overpaying for Thomas. But don’t rule out the Broncos as a possible destination. 

8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

According to CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora, the Buccaneers are seriously interested in Mathieu. That tells us the Buccaneers are willing to spend money to fix their terrible secondary. While Mathieu is a better long-term investment than Thomas for age-related reasons, I wonder if the Buccaneers would target Thomas — a much different safety than Mathieu — if the Ravens or Texans win the Mathieu sweepstakes. 

By committing to Jameis Winston, new coach Bruce Arians has indicated that he thinks the Buccaneers can win now. To do that, they’ll need to address their 32nd-ranked defense by DVOA. Thomas would certainly be an upgrade over Chris Conte. With extremely limited cap space (only one team has less), this is an unlikely pairing. But if they cut some dead weight and shift some money around, they could make it work. 

7. Baltimore Ravens

After surprisingly cutting Eric Weddle, the Ravens are in the market for a safety. According to La Canfora, the Ravens are also seriously interested in Mathieu, who doesn’t really play the same position as Thomas. Thomas is a single-high safety. Mathieu is a Swiss Army knife that can be deployed closer to the line of scrimmage. 

Given Mathieu’s age (26) and resume, he’ll be a hot commodity. The Ravens will have competition for his services. If they miss out on Mathieu, they could turn their attention to Thomas. But a smarter use of their money might be applying it to a C.J. Mosley contract.       

6. Green Bay Packers

The Packers are a contender that needs to go all-in with Aaron Rodgers for the remainder of his career. They have more than $33 million in available cap space. After trading away Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, they have an opening at safety. Perhaps they’ll address that opening in the draft with one of their two first-round picks. Or they could sign Thomas.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Packers used a middle-of-the-field safety 61 percent of the time last season. So, they would certainly know how to use him. 

5. Oakland Raiders

With just south of $61 million available, cap space is not an issue for the Raiders. With both Marcus Gilchrist and Reggie Nelson slated to become free agents next week, the Raiders could use a new free safety. Given Jon Gruden’s history in free agency, Thomas’ age will be of little to no concern to him, even though the Raiders are likely a couple years away from competing. By the time the Raiders’ rebuild is complete, Thomas might be past his prime. 

But it’s not like Gruden is known for being smart in free agency. And Gruden did tell Seattle reporters in October, “Wish we had more ex-Seahawks on our team. We’ll try to get more of them.”

Furthermore, with three first-round picks and plenty of cap space, the Raiders’ rebuild could be completed sooner than expected. Thomas would certainly help accelerate the process. If it’s money Thomas wants, the Raiders might be the team best able to give it to him.

4. Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons did not go 7-9 because of their offense. They went 7-9 because of their defense, which finished the season ranked 31st in DVOA. 

Pairing Thomas with Keanu Neal, who could be deployed closer to the line of scrimmage, would give the Falcons the best safety tandem in the league. It would also reunite Thomas with Dan Quinn, who got the Falcons job after his work as the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator. The only problem? The Falcons have roughly $7.5 million in available cap space this year. 

Cap space is one of those things that can almost always be navigated. It shouldn’t stop the Falcons from pursuing Thomas. But it might make acquiring him more difficult.

3. Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys have had eyes for Thomas and Thomas has had eyes for the Cowboys. Late in the 2017 season, immediately after the Seahawks beat the Cowboys in Dallas, Thomas, who is from Orange, Texas and played collegiately at Texas, found Jason Garrett outside the locker room and told him to “come get me.” Thomas later clarified that he didn’t mean he wanted the Cowboys to trade for him immediately. He just wanted them to sign him “when Seattle kicks me to the curb.”

Well, that has since happened. Even before it did happen, the Cowboys tried to get him. During last year’s draft, they reportedly offered the Seahawks a third-round pick. Ahead of their early-season meeting in September, during which Thomas notched two interceptions of Dak Prescott, the Cowboys reportedly tried to restart trade talks

Clearly, there’s an interest. The fit is obvious. The Cowboys don’t have a star safety on their roster. In two of the past three seasons, they’ve won the NFC East. They’re a playoff-caliber team. 

But it’s looking increasingly unlikely that Thomas will sign with the Cowboys unless he is willing to take less money, which also appears to be unlikely. As La Canfora reported, Thomas wants $13 million per year. According to Calvin Watkins of The Athletic, the Cowboys aren’t expected to be anything more than “bargain shoppers.” According to Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Thomas won’t give the Cowboys a discount.

Watkins reiterated this week that the Cowboys won’t pay Thomas big money.

Unless someone changes their stance, Thomas appears to be heading elsewhere.

Still, the Cowboys — given all of their prior interest in Thomas and vice versa — can’t be ruled out entirely until Thomas puts pens to paper. With the safety market as saturated as it is, Thomas might not be able to find the lucrative long-term deal he desires. And if that happens, maybe he would accept a lesser offer to play for the Cowboys.

2. Kansas City Chiefs

My personal favorite landing spot is Kansas City. 

Before Thomas broke his leg, the Chiefs were nearing a trade for him, according to Yahoo!’s Terez Paylor. Since then, the Chiefs watched their terrible defense cost them a spot in the Super Bowl. Fixing the defense has to be their priority this offseason. The Chiefs could sign Thomas and still use Eric Berry closer to the line of scrimmage. Thomas alone wouldn’t fix the Chiefs’ defense, but he would shore up the back end better than anyone else. The Chiefs are certainly in win-now mode and they have a clear problem that Thomas could help fix. 

With Patrick Mahomes still on his rookie deal, the Chiefs are afforded the luxury of spending the money that should be going to their top quarterback elsewhere. Justin Houston is expected to be cut in a move that will save $14 million against the cap. Dee Ford was franchise tagged, but he could be traded. With Chris Jones and Tyreek Hill needing extensions before their deals expire after the coming season (not to mention Mahomes’ eventual monster contract), the Chiefs do need to spend wisely to plan for the future. Spending big money on Thomas after spending big money on Berry might not be financially prudent. 

But there’s no denying how much he would help a team that’s already a Super Bowl contender.

1. San Francisco 49ers

Despite their 4-12 season, the 49ers are entering the upcoming season with the playoffs and Super Bowl on their mind. With Jimmy Garoppolo coming back and $65 million in available cap space, the 49ers are the most likely team to make the leap from bad to good in 2019. Now, they just need to figure out how they’re going to spend all of that money.

Trading for someone like Antonio Brown would be enticing. So would signing Thomas. The 49ers’ safety group of Jaquiski Tartt, Adrian Colbert, and D.J. Reed isn’t good enough. The 49ers haven’t shied away from signing aging defensive players before like … Thomas’ former teammate, Richard Sherman, who rewarded the 49ers with a sneaky good 2018 season. Speaking of Sherman, he’s already been recruiting Thomas. 

Thomas is the kind of signing that would turn the 49ers into a legitimate playoff contender, even if they might regret the financial commitment when aging inevitably takes its toll. With all of their cap space, it’s a financial burden they can survive in the short term. And Thomas would make the 49ers significantly better immediately.

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