NEW YORK – Earl Thomas bounced back from a broken leg that had him contemplating retirement to reclaiming his place as the NFL’s top safety.
The Seattle Seahawks’ playmaking star and defensive leader was voted the league’s No. 1 player at his position in The Associated Press positional rankings.
Thomas easily beat out Minnesota’s Harrison Smith and Kansas City’s Eric Berry in the voting, which was conducted by Pro Football Hall of Famer James Lofton and 10 AP football writers.
“Forget the other Legion of Boom members, Thomas is the key to Seattle’s secondary and defense overall,” said AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner, who’s based in New York.
Thomas received six of 11 first-place votes in a 10-points-to-one-point system. He placed second on three ballots and fourth on two for 101 total points.
Smith joined Thomas as the only players to appear on all 11 ballots. He tied Berry, who’s out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon, for second place with 73 points.
Smith, Berry, the Giants’ Landon Collins, Tennessee’s Kevin Byard and New England’s Devin McCourty each received a first-place vote. Collins finished fourth with 50 points, while Byard and Philadelphia’s Malcolm Jenkins tied for fifth with 42 points.
Thomas broke his left leg last season in Week 13 against Carolina when he collided with teammate Kam Chancellor while defending a pass. He posted on Twitter that he was considering calling it a career, only to launch a comeback shortly after.
Thomas made it back in time for the season opener, and has 38 tackles and two interceptions this season despite missing the last two games with a hamstring injury. He’s expected back this week, and just in time with cornerback Richard Sherman out for the year with a torn Achilles and Chancellor dealing with a stinger.
“Looks like he’s on his way to Canton,” said AP’s Howard Fendrich, based in Washington.
“He has it all: size, speed, tackling ability,” said AP’s Rob Maaddi, based in Philadelphia. “One of the greatest ever.”
Maaddi had Smith as his No. 1 safety, saying that he’s a “dynamic player” for the Vikings. Smith, who was selected to the last two Pro Bowls, has 51 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks and three interceptions this season.
“Excellent against the run, in coverage and rushing the passer,” said Maaddi, who had Thomas second.
Berry was the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year for the 2015 season after overcoming cancer. He made it back to the Pro Bowl last season for the fifth time and is the league’s highest-paid player at the position, but will now have to launch another comeback after his latest setback.
“He was No. 1 before going down for the season in Week 1,” Maaddi said.
Byard made it onto the list with a terrific second season, marked by an impressive two-game stretch in which he had five interceptions – tied for the most in that span since the 1970 merger.
“If you don’t know his name, you will,” said AP’s Teresa Walker, who’s based in Tennessee and voted for Byard at No. 1. “Only in his second season, Byard has been trusted by coordinator Dick LeBeau to make the Titans’ defensive calls.”
Byard was a third-rounder out of Middle Tennessee State last year and had no interceptions in 16 games as a rookie.
“Where did Byard come from?” Wilner said. “Who cares? The guy is a ballhawk and smart overall defender.”
McCourty was seventh in the rankings with 36 points, helped by his one first-place vote by Lofton.
“He could be a top 10 corner,” the Hall of Fame wide receiver said of the Patriots safety who has made a seamless transition since his position switch in 2012.
Chancellor finished eighth with 32 points, edging Detroit’s Glover Quin, who had 31 points. Buffalo’s Micah Hyde rounded out the top 10 with 24 points – one point ahead of Green Bay’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
“He plays the position like a linebacker,” AP’s Dave Campbell of Minnesota said of Chancellor. “Hard to find a harder hitter.”
Twenty-five players received votes, a group that also included Arizona’s Tyrann Mathieu, Baltimore’s Eric Weddle, New Orleans’ Kenny Vaccaro and Jacksonville’s Tashaun Gipson.
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