These Seahawks are ball hawks

Richard ShermanAP Photo/Elaine Thompson

The Seattle Seahawks' ethereal defensive backs, Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman, didn't win Super Bowl XLVIII by being shy.

Earlier this month, they both spent some time chatting with from the team's facility in Renton, Washington. The occasion? There are more than 800 viable NFL defensive players, but our 90-person team of #NFLRANK evaluators placed teammates at Nos. 2 and 3.

"First of all," said Thomas, with a surprising degree of intensity, "who's second and who's third?"

The free safety wasn't thrilled with the hesitant answer: Sherman, then Thomas -- behind No. 1 Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.

"OK, OK," Thomas said, processing the information. "Well, that's why they play the game."

Last year, no one played it better than these two high-flying teammates. Sherman, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound cornerback, had eight interceptions for the second consecutive year and 16 passes defensed.

Thomas, 5-10, 202 pounds, had 105 total tackles and five interceptions. They are the biggest reason Seattle finished the season in a blur, punctuated by a 43-8 wrecking of the Denver Broncos. The Seahawks, apparently, are on board with our voters because during the offseason they made Sherman the league's richest cornerback ($56 million extension for four years) and Thomas the richest safety ($40 million for four years).

"I appreciate the accolade, man," said Sherman, who will grace the cover of Madden NFL 15. "It's always great to be recognized."

To get back to Thomas' pointed question, who's the better player?

"Ahh, I don't know," said Sherman, who has heard this one a few times before. "We have two very different job descriptions. We're both pretty good at what we do.

"Earl is more of an aggressive ball-hawker. I go to the ball and keep people from catching it."

Although Sherman, at 26, is a year older, the safety says he learned by watching Thomas.

"His path was much different than mine," Thomas explained. "He was a fifth-round pick [Stanford, 2011] and I was a first-rounder [Texas, 2010]. What connects us is the way we work to try to perfect our craft. We understand the inner game.

"You should see us compete against each other. Together, we have no weaknesses."

They've played a total of seven NFL seasons, but it's not premature to wonder where Sherman and Thomas stack up with history's great defensive duos.

If the criteria is NFL titles and a cream-colored Hall of Fame jacket (or the future possibility), there are more than a few to chose from:

• Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp and freshly enshrined Derrick Brooks won the 2002 Super Bowl. Safety John Lynch may yet join them.

• The Ravens' Ray Lewis and Ed Reed both played on Baltimore's most recent Super Bowl team, but Reed wasn't there for the first.

• The New York Giants won Super Bowl XXI with linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson.

• The year before, Chicago did it with three Hall of Fame defenders: Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton and Richard Dent.

• The Raiders and 49ers won two Super Bowls each, respectively, with the tandems of Ted Hendricks/Willie Brown and Ronnie Lott/Fred Dean.

And then there are the great Pittsburgh Steelers defenses of the 1970s and the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s. The Steelers won four Super Bowls in six seasons and featured four future Hall of Famers. Green Bay won three NFL titles and two Super Bowls with five defenders destined to be enshrined in Canton, Ohio.

Subtract the championship criteria and you must consider the Minnesota Vikings, who were led by Alan Page and Carl Eller. One of our evaluators, who is approaching a quarter century at ESPN, believes the greatest defensive duo ever was the Los Angeles Rams' David "Deacon" Jones and Merlin Olsen, followed closely by those Steelers.

He further thinks that San Francisco linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman (Nos. 7 and 12 among our top 100) were the best combo from a single team. Patrick Peterson and a Cardinals teammate to be named later ( Calais Campbell, suspended Daryl Washington or Tyrann Mathieu) would stack up well with the Seahawks' pair.

For what it's worth, none of those loaded championship rosters had two Hall of Fame defensive backs. With passing numbers at all-time highs, that may soon change. Four of's top eight defenders were defensive backs, including the Patriots' Darrelle Revis and the Cardinals' Peterson.

"I think it's the premier position on the field because of the degree of difficulty," Peterson said. "You have to have great instincts and make quick decisions. The rules are so strict that it's harder than ever."

Insisted Thomas, "I don't think there have been two defenders like us. I was on some bad Seahawks teams at first, and we got better.

"My motto is: Who can you bring along with you? That's what leaders do. And, we haven't reached our full potential yet. That's the scary part. We didn't see it last year but, trust me, we see it now."

The last words, of course, go to Sherman.

"Obviously, our careers aren't in the books yet," he said after listing several defensive backfields he admired. "We would hope to get there one day. We're blessed to be in that conversation now. I have to say we'll still be there when all is said and done."