It may be true, as Richard Sherman likes to say, that he is the best cornerback in the NFL. But it’s also very true that no matter what, the Seattle Seahawks cornerback isn’t even the best player in his own secondary.

That honor goes to safety Earl Thomas, who has gained quite a bit of traction this season in his overwhelming goal to be the best defensive player in the NFL. It’s not just those who watch him live and on tape who believe that he’s well on his way — the kudos began from his own teammates, and it didn’t take too long after Thomas was selected 14th overall in the 2010 draft.

“Earl has had a big influence,” linebacker Bobby Wagner said before the 2013 season began. “He talks to me every day. He’s always giving me advice and telling me how he did it when he first got into the league. We’re trying to be great and we feel like we can be great together. We’re trying to be similar to Ed Reed and Ray Lewis.”

That’s a lot to ask of any duo, but Thomas is following adroitly in the footsteps of Reed and Troy Polamalu, the acknowledged best and most athletic safeties of their generation. When Thomas started out in the NFL, however, there were challenges — his closing speed was rare and special, but he was overrunning too many plays early on. Head coach Pete Carroll had Polamalu at USC in 2001 and 2002, and he had to teach Polamalu that same fine balance.

“He was a guy that could go over the top,” Carroll told me about Polamalu (and by extension, Thomas) in 2012. “He was such an extraordinary competitor and so fiery … [these were] unbelievable competitors and so driven that they would lose their poise at times because they wanted so much to do something and make something happen. But when you corral that, that’s all you could ever ask for. It takes time to get guys to the point where they can utilize their instincts to the maximum and also stay in a manner of poise that they can make really good decisions, not just let the juice get the best of them.”

Now, there are no issues. Thomas may still overrun the occasional play, but at this point, it’s like an error from Omar Vizquel or Luis Aparicio, when players “miss” plays that mere mortals couldn’t possibly touch. With a forbidding combination of intensity, focus, film study and belief in his own talent, Thomas has mined the ore of that talent as much as anyone could expect. At age 25, he’s become a supreme inspiration and leader for a franchise that comes into Super Bowl XLVIII as the second-youngest group (behind the 1971 Miami Dolphins) to get to this biggest of games.

“Earl is as serious a competitor as you could ever hope to be around,” Carroll said two days before the Seahawks got on a plane from Renton, Wash., to New Jersey. “He is in it, and he’s on it and dialed in, and always. Off the field in taking care of himself, on the field his practice and of course his play. They have just grown, and we’ve all kind of grown together. These guys have kind of played together for a while and we benefit from that, but he’s just at the top of his game and we count on him in that fashion and he’s not going to disappoint you.”

Receiver Doug Baldwin’s take is similar to that of his teammates — Thomas is the beating heart of the NFL’s best defense, and the respect paid is universal.