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Persons of Interest: Earl Thomas and Wes Welker

thomas center
The Seahawks nearly missed drafting safety Earl Thomas in 2010, but have seen him grow into an All-Pro. (AP)

By Danny O'Neil

NEW YORK – Taking a closer look at two more key players in Super Bowl XLVIII, Seattle's Earl Thomas and Denver's Wes Welker:

Earl Thomas' vitals

• Position: Seahawks centerfielder
• Height: 5-10
• Weight: 202
• Age: 24
• Experience: Fourth year

The storyline

He was the safety Seattle never expected to be able to draft, and the one who may be most essential to the style of defense Seattle plays. He is the shortest member of a secondary known for its size, a guy who was a risk taker his first year who has grown to be the safety net reinforcing the back of the defense.

Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman and the Seahawks' physical brand of coverage earn all the attention, but it's Thomas and his range that allow Seattle to play the style of defense they prefer: single high safety. That means one man is at the back of the defense, trusted to cover more range than anyone else in the league.

His selection with the No. 14 overall pick in 2010 came as a shock. Not just because many were expecting the Seahawks to target Taylor Mays in the draft, but because when Philadelphia traded up to the No. 13 spot, Seattle was convinced the Eagles made the move to pick Thomas. In fact, general manager John Schneider had a trade already worked out to move down in the draft order were Thomas gone.

When the Eagles picked outside pass rusher Brandon Graham out of Michigan, Seattle was free to pick Thomas and four years later he is making a case as the best safety in the league.

The statement

Thomas is one of the quieter members of this defense, but someone who is coming out of his shell this season whether it was keeping a journal to track the growth of his confidence or setting up a booth to offer free safety advice outside Pike Place Market in Seattle earlier this season (Get it? He plays free safety and was telling people to watch their step).

He made no secret about the height of his ambitions this week.

Question: Do you try to emulate another player?

Thomas: "Not really. The safety position is still kind of new to me, but I think I'm unique. If you take two people that I really watch, it would be Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed. I just try to take what they do best and bring both of them into my own game."

Question: What is the significance of the Legion of Boom?

Thomas: "I think it just means legendary. We have a great chance to be the best to ever do it, and we understand that. It's about keep practicing our butts off and keep taking coaching and keep striving to be the best."

Question: Do you strive to be a legendary defense?

Thomas: "Definitely. Why wouldn't you? We play this sport to be competitors, and as competitors, second place? We don't have any room for that."

Question: What's the most underrated part of your game?

Thomas: "I don't know. I just try to be the best. I just try to own my role, be the best free safety possible and try to eliminate all the big plays in the run game and the pass game."

Wes Welker's vitals

• Position: Slot machine
• Height: 5-9
• Weight: 185
• Age: 32
• Experience: 10th season

The storyline

Welker
Wes Welker made his name as Tom Brady's favorite target in New England, but he caught a career-high 10 touchdowns in 2013 with the Broncos. (AP)

Welker didn't just play his way to the top of the league after entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2004. He changed the way teams look at receivers coming out of spread offenses in college.

Foot speed, quickness and precision have a place in the NFL even for an undersized receiver who isn't going to outsprint a defensive back in a track meet.

The Chargers cut him after one game as a rookie, and he went to Miami where he became a special-teams ace. He returned a punt for a touchdown on Monday Night Football and even kicked an extra point in one game.

After playing three seasons with the Dolphins, he signed with the Patriots as a restricted free agent and went on to log five 1,000-yard receiving seasons in his six years with the team. Unsigned by Patriots after last season, he went to Denver where he had a career-high 10 touchdown catches this season.

Beginning to notice a pattern? Seattle better not be the next team to underestimate Welker because he's one of the tools quarterback Peyton Manning is going to use as he probes for a weakness, a mismatch against Seattle's defense.

The statement

Most of the build up to this Super Bowl has focused on Manning's ability to dissect Seattle's secondary, but it's not the quarterback who's going to be fighting through the coverage. It's receivers like Welker.

Question: What do you think of Seattle's secondary?

Welker: "They have a very talented group. A lot of guys that can really run. A lot of guys that have a lot of length, physical guys. They definitely do a great job collectively of playing within their system and doing a great job making plays."

Question: How do you expect to be effective against Seattle's secondary?

Welker: "I expect to be effective just by doing what I do and going out there and playing hard. Playing tough and making plays over the middle, trying to move the sticks and put us in position to score some points."

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