On the surface, it was just one of nearly 100 trades made involving 2009 NFL Draft picks. The Denver Broncos targeted a player they liked early in the second round and made an aggressive move to get him. Had it worked out, Denver would have been lauded for its boldness. The only problem is the trade that sent the No. 37 pick from Seattle to Denver was almost an instant bust for the Broncos. Even worse, the player Seattle landed as a result of it will be one of the Broncos' main obstacles in winning Super Bowl XLVIII.
The 2009 draft was the first for the Broncos with newly installed head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Brian Xanders. They landed Knowshon Moreno and Robert Ayers in the first round and still had two second-round picks to use. Seattle came on the clock with the No. 37 pick, but a trade was announced. Denver jumped up into the slot to take 5'9 cornerback Alphonso Smith. The Broncos reportedly had a first-round grade on Smith and made the move to go get him before he dropped any further. But Denver didn't use one of its two other second-round picks for trade ammo, instead opting to trade its 2010 first-round pick to Seattle.
The deal proved to be a colossal failure. Smith hardly played as a rookie and Denver finished 8-8, meaning the Broncos sent the No. 14 pick in the 2010 NFL Draft to Seattle for compensation. Smith was such a non-factor that the Broncos dealt him to Detroit the following year for backup tight end Dan Gronkowski, a seventh-round pick in 2009.
If the story stopped there, it would be just another regrettable draft tale of a team that got essentially nothing from a premium asset. But, it gets worse. Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider took over in Seattle and wasted little time putting that pick to good use. Many thought Carroll would draft Taylor Mays with the No. 14 pick, his former protege at USC. Instead, the Seahawks used the pick from Denver to nab Texas safety Earl Thomas.
Thomas stepped into the starting lineup as a rookie and never left. He is a three-time All-Pro, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and probably the most irreplaceable player on Seattle's No. 1 ranked defense. Thomas is tasked with a lot of responsibility in Seattle's defense, often covering the deep middle of the field when Seattle runs a cover-3 defense. The Seahawks will often walk strong safety Kam Chancellor into the box, relying on Thomas and his rare combination of elite speed and natural instincts to patrol deep. He effectively does just that and is a major reason why Seattle has the No. 1 pass defense in the league.
Mike Chan of Field Gulls broke down Thomas' role in the Seahawks defense:
Does the scheme makes the player or does the player make the scheme? This is a question that has haunted the game of football, and like the chicken vs. the egg argument, there's compelling evidence for both. We saw how Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha struggled when they switched from man to zone coverage respectively, and neither the Jets nor the Raiders have ever been the same since both players left.
Of course, what this article shows - and what Earl Thomas, Pete Carroll and the rest of the Seahawks believes - is that you need a bit of both to succeed. Thomas is arguably the centerpiece of the defense, and his pure speed and athleticism allows him to travel large stretches of the field at the speed of light. When you combine this with a Cover 3 - which gives him the opportunity to use those skills to advantage, well - you don't really need to do much to shut down one of the best offenses in the NFL today.
Denver received - 15 appearances, 12 tackles from Alphonso Smith and eight catches for 65 yards from Dan Gronkowski
Seattle received - Three-time All-Pro and the centerpiece of the defense, Earl Thomas
The Broncos will spend countless hours planning ways to attack the Seattle defense. A significant chunk of that preparation will be dedicated to solving the problem Thomas creates, one created by a since-ousted head coach and an ill-fated 2009 trade. If Seattle wins the Super Bowl, Carroll and Schneider should probably send McDaniels a very nice gift basket. It's the least they could do since he gifted them an All-Pro.