Eagles' Cedric Thornton motivated by those who doubted him

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cedric Thornton tackles the Giants' David Wilson in the teams' earlier meeting this month.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cedric Thornton tackles the Giants' David Wilson in the teams' earlier meeting this month.
Posted: November 11, 2013

An Eagles draft pick recently told Cedric Thornton that he sensed Thornton didn't like him when he arrived in Philadelphia.

"You got drafted," Thornton answered.

When the Eagles drafted defensive linemen Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry last season, Thornton said it took him weeks to warm up to his teammates. He knows when the offensive linemen trying to block him were picked - especially the early-rounders.

When the Eagles played the Kansas City Chiefs on Sept. 19, Thornton told 2013 No. 1 pick Eric Fisher that Fisher couldn't block an undrafted player from a Division II school.

"It's definitely that mind-set every day, every game," Thornton said. "That's actually a chip on my shoulder."

It is an axiom offered by many players in NFL locker rooms, but with Thornton it has more credence. He went undrafted out of Division II Southern Arkansas. He spent much of 2011 on the Eagles' practice squad. He played only as a reserve in 2012. Thornton is now a starter and seems to earn weekly praise from coach Chip Kelly, who said last month that Thornton was playing the best of anyone on defense.

Thornton is the type of player the Eagles need to continue developing if they are going to become consistent winners. When general manager Howie Roseman talks about avoiding shortcuts in building the roster, he's saying he wants to develop draft picks and undrafted free agents. It's a method that has kept Sunday's opponent, the Green Bay Packers, among the NFL's top teams.

Of the 53 men on Green Bay's roster, 31 are their draft picks, and nine are players they originally signed as rookie free agents.

The Eagles are working toward that model. They have 26 draft picks on the 53-man roster and seven that they signed as rookie free agents. Six are from the last two seasons.

The coaching staff and players rave about Thornton's effort and ambition, which are central to an ethos built from being overlooked and underrated.

"What if they did draft me? And I would have just been content?" Thornton said. "There's a lot of guys, when they're drafted they're satisfied with what they get paid with."

The progression

Thornton could not secure a college scholarship as an undersize lineman from Star City, Ark. He was an unheralded prospect who spent six of his childhood summers picking peas by hand for 12 hours a day at a $50 daily wage.

Thornton walked on to Southern Arkansas' football team as a 6-foot-4, 210-pound freshman and grew to 265 pounds as a junior. Thornton is 309 pounds today.

Although he starred as a senior at Southern Arkansas and every NFL team visited Magnolia, Ark., Thornton had been dismissed from school for disciplinary reasons with two games remaining in his senior season. He planned on returning home to Star City to find a job before agent Jimmy Sexton signed him.

Thornton said Sexton, whose client list includes Jason Witten, Julio Jones, and Philip Rivers, acted on the advice of NFL Hall of Famer Bill Parcells, who had been impressed with Thornton's film.

With powerful representation, Thornton took advantage of a Senior Bowl invitation and prepared for the NFL scouting combine. He still went undrafted, and was encouraged to sign with the Eagles because of former defensive line coach Jim Washburn's system.

Thornton made the team out of the preseason in 2011 but was released before the opening game. He signed with the Eagles' practice squad and even turned down the opportunity to sign with another team's active roster that season because of the plans the Eagles had for him. The Eagles matched the prorated NFL minimum salary of $375,000 to keep him on the practice squad before eventually promoting him.

"I just didn't want to go," he said, expressing his desire to remain with the Eagles and the confidence that the front office shared.

Thornton was a backup last season to Cox, who was the team's top draft pick, and veterans Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson. He finished the season with 47 tackles and one sack, and others on the team saw promise from practice.

"Right away, everyone in the building saw a lot of potential in Ced," said center Jason Kelce, who came into the league in the same year and blocked Thornton in practice. "He's very explosive, very powerful. And he has a high motor. Never really stops, is always going. That's what you pick up. Not only does he have the growth potential, but he has the want-to to be great."

Kelly had never heard of Thornton when he arrived in Philadelphia. Neither had defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro. But when they watched film from last season, Thornton stood out.

"We felt as a staff when you turn the tape on, that this guy could be a good football player because of his effort," Kelly said. "His ability to run and make contact with the ball. Then when you get a chance to start working with him, you thought, 'Hey, this guy could be a good player here.' "

The starter

Thornton requires either big gloves or small handwriting before every game.

On his right glove, Thornton writes his statistical objective and the names of the offensive linemen, quarterback, and running back who stand in the way of that objective. He started the season wanting to accumulate five tackles and two sacks every Sunday, but he changed the first number to 10 when five became too obtainable.

On his left glove, he writes his favorite scriptures. His father, Nathaniel, is a pastor and his mother, Angela, is a minister. Thornton sang in his church's choir and often invokes religion in daily conversation. His pregame ritual is reading the Bible.

The names of his two children are written on the top of each hand. The hands have been busy this season: Thornton has 47 tackles and one sack and has played 62 percent of the defensive snaps.

When Kelly was asked on Oct. 24 who has been his best pass rusher this season, he answered "Thornton." On Oct. 14, Kelly said Thornton has been the team's "most impressive defensive lineman." On Oct. 2, he said Thornton was playing "our best defensive football right now."

Cox has ascended in recent weeks, and together they've become a formidable foundation on the defensive line. Thornton's versatility - he can go from defensive end to nose tackle - also has been valuable.

"I don't know what his ceiling could be. I'm not a fortune-teller," Azzinaro said. "We try to look at it, 'How did you perform today?' Tomorrow's another day. And we stack it up."

Like Kelce, Kelly praised Thornton's high motor - that's a common compliment - and also called Thornton a "technician" who is rarely out of position. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis singled out Thornton's contacts with the ball, an in-house stat that this staff values in a lineman.

Thornton will be an exclusive-rights free agent at the end of the season, so he'll likely remain with the Eagles in 2014 and is on track to be part of the core of Kelly's defense.

The Eagles need to find and develop more players like him. They drafted 11 players instead of Thornton in 2011. Only five remain. They signed nine rookie free agents after that summer's lockout. Only Thornton remains. He went from undrafted to practice squad to reserve to starter.

And what keeps him improving is the reminder of those who didn't have to take that route.


zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

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