Earl Thomas takes on bigger role, but how long will it last?

Earl Thomas has returned to the Seattle Seahawks. But it wasn’t a completely happy reunion.

Last Wednesday, when Thomas ended his holdout, he wrote in an Instagram post that “the disrespect has been well noted and will not be forgotten.”

It was a stark contrast to how Kam Chancellor returned from his holdout in 2015. So obstinate was Chancellor initially that he missed the first two games of that season, yet he was able to put hard feelings aside right away. So much so that he stood next to coach Pete Carroll at the podium on the day he returned, wearing a Seahawks cap and talking to reporters about not taking business decisions personally.

Can Thomas do the same?

“I’m going to try to do the best I can, try to work my way through it,” he said when asked if he’ll be able to put his contract dispute behind him and focus on football. “I’ve got a great team behind me.”

That remains to be seen. The Seahawks’ first-unit defense in Sunday’s season opener against the Denver Broncos included a pair of rookies -- linebacker Shaquem Griffin and cornerback Tre Flowers -- at new positions from what they played in college.

Another player -- defensive end Quinton Jefferson -- was making his first career start, and alongside them were two other starters -- defensive tackle Tom Johnson and linebacker Barkevious Mingo -- who joined Seattle as free agents over the offseason.

All told, five of the 11 starters were either new to the Seahawks or new to their starting lineup. And maybe most indicative of how much Seattle’s defense has changed was that only three players who started Sunday were also in the starting lineup for last season’s opener against Green Bay.

You could tell.

“We showed some newness and unfortunately it got us,” Carroll said Monday on his 710 ESPN Seattle radio show a day after the Seahawks’ defense allowed 27 points to Case Keenum and the Broncos in a three-point defeat.

Now try to picture that group without Thomas.

For Thomas’ case, Sunday's opener is another exhibit in his argument for a new contract. On the Broncos’ first two possessions, Thomas broke up a pass and then picked off Keenum to set up the Seahawks’ first touchdown.

It underscores Thomas’ new importance that was evident Sunday. It wasn’t just because of the plays that he made but also because of how he’s now the most experienced and maybe the most talented member of a defense full of new pieces and question marks.

“It’s important to have Earl regardless if it’s new players or old players,” strong safety Bradley McDougald said. “Earl’s going to be Earl, and he showed it today.”

The Seahawks spelled Thomas with second-year free safety Tedric Thompson for 10 of their 74 defensive snaps against Denver. Carroll said they planned to give Thomas a few more plays off given that he was coming back so soon after missing so much time.

One of the plays he missed resulted in Denver’s first touchdown when Phillip Lindsay caught a pass in the left flat and took it 29 yards to the end zone. Either Flowers or Griffin -- who’s playing weakside linebacker while K.J. Wright recovers from knee surgery -- was out of position. Thompson couldn’t shed a block before Lindsay crossed the goal line.

According to ESPN charting, Denver averaged 11.9 yards per play and had a 99.2 raw QBR when Thomas was off the field compared to a 5.66-yard average and a 26.2 raw QBR when he was on it.

"We knew we could not play him the whole game, but we wanted to give him a great chance to contribute,” Carroll said of Thomas, “and he did -- immediately.”

Speaking with reporters for the first time since returning, Thomas was asked after the game whether he still wants to be in Seattle. As he was answering, “If they want me, yeah,” McDougald blurted out from the next locker, “Hell yeah!”

Teammates seem to have embraced Thomas since his return. Wide receiver Doug Baldwin literally did so on Wednesday, saying he gave Thomas a huge hug when he walked into the team meeting room and saw him there for the first time. Defensive end Frank Clark referred to Thomas as “a legend” in the locker room.

“It felt good because we love having him around,” Clark said of having Thomas back. “Just him coming back over this last week, you could tell the energy shift in the building. He’s very quiet, but his aura speaks volumes.”

How teammates feel about Thomas is one thing. How Thomas feels about coming back without a new contract is another thing.

It remains anyone’s guess as to how the Thomas situation will end. Carroll’s comments last week about wanting Thomas to finish his career in Seattle seemed like a strong indication that an extension isn’t out of the question at some point. But there’s still a question -- at least in Thomas’ mind, it seems -- of whether the fences can be sufficiently mended.

“I have no clue. I have no clue,” he said when asked how burned the bridges are between him and the organization. “All I can do is just put the best product out there as possible, protect myself until I do get paid.”

There’s still the possibility of a trade. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported last week that the Dallas Cowboys had increased their offer to a second-round pick but that Seattle still wants more in return.

Keep in mind that the Seahawks would, at best, receive a third-round compensatory pick in 2020 if Thomas were to leave in free agency after this season. There’s a massive difference in value between a 2019 second-round pick and a 2020 pick at the end of the third round.

It begs the question: If he isn’t going to be in Seattle beyond 2018, what’s one season of Thomas worth?

Based on what he’s shown throughout his career and what was evident on Sunday from Seattle’s young and remade defense, it may be quite a bit.

“I’m always confident with him out there,” cornerback Justin Coleman said. “He pays attention to the details and he’s legendary. I feel like he’s going to always do his job well.”