As October turned to November and November turned to December, Cedric Thornton couldn’t escape the reality that being arguably the NFL’s best run-stuffing defensive lineman wasn’t good enough.
Although he routinely strong-armed opposing offensive linemen and made disruptive plays in the backfield, Thornton finished his first season as an Eagles starter with just one sack.
Never mind that it came against Peyton Manning in Week 4. He went the next 13 weeks without one. As the drought elapsed, so did the doubt.
“You hear it,” he said. “You want to take everything with a grain of salt, but you know for sure (what’s being said). Stats-wise, I looked at it and I only had one sack. Then when you read it and you find out everybody else knows and is noticing, it takes you out mentally. You’ll be like, ‘OK, you’re really not a pass rusher.’ I let that get to me last year.”
Even his wife, Shakacia, piled on the heap.
“She tells me, ‘You only had one sack,’” he added. “It’s motivation to keep going and try to get more than one, get more than five, get more than the [average for] 3-4 defensive ends.”
Thornton spent much of his offseason fighting the perception that he’s a one-trick pony in the most literal sense. In an effort to refine the coordination between his hands and feet, he took up boxing at a South Jersey gym.
With its requisite ducking and dodging, boxing offers many of the same maneuvers and techniques used by defensive linemen to fend off guard and tackles.
“With pass rushing you want to have your hands and feet on the same level, so when you flip your hips and your hands it all coordinates together,” Thornton said. “Boxing is really what we do without punching in the face. We’re actually punching the offensive linemen and we’re actually trying to get separation and sometimes you’ve got to duck and sometimes you’ve got to dive.”
Can some sparring turn Thornton into a double-digit sack specialist? Not likely. But the refinement can help him pick up a few more sacks, which would do wonders for his confidence. By the end of last season, Thornton had started to remove himself from the field on pass-rushing downs.
“Everybody’s like, ‘Yeah, he’s a good run stuffer but he only had one sack.’ It’s just people putting limits on me and I started to put limits on myself, too,” he said. “I started taking myself out on third down. So this year I want to be the person that can stop the run and pass rush, too. So I’m just trying to show that I’m more than a one-dimensional player. I know that I can pass rush.”
Being perhaps the league’s best run-stuffing 3-4 lineman should have been plenty given that Thornton entered the season as one of the biggest question marks on the defense. He had played just 16 games in his first two seasons but managed to win the starting right defensive end spot despite no prior experience as a 3-4 lineman.
Then he transformed overnight into a dominant force against the run. He led the line with 78 tackles, five for a loss, and finished the year rated by Pro Football Focus as the league’s third-best linemen against the run behind Houston’s J.J. Watt, the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year, and the Jets’ Sheldon Richardson, who won Defensive Rookie of the Year.
It can be argued that Thornton outperformed the other two based on level of competition. The Eagles played six games against opponents who finished with a top-10 rusher, not counting their game against Tampa Bay and Doug Martin, who was ranked in the top 10 before suffering a season-ending injury. The Texans only faced four of the league’s top-10 leading rushers. The Jets faced none.
The Eagles signed Thornton to a one-year exclusive rights free-agent deal in the offseason that will pay him the veteran minimum this season. If Thornton can just pick up his pass rush one or two notches, he’ll have a much better shot of securing a long-term deal next offseason.
That’s what he’s spent his whole offseason working toward, all those hours inside the boxing ring.
“This is definitely going to set different tone, because I never had problems pass rushing,” he said. “I had 10 sacks in college (for Southern Arkansas) at the Division II level, but football is football. Like I said, that’s something I want to get better at.
“If you turn on the film, no doubt I’m getting rushes on the quarterback and I’m making impact to make the quarterback make difficult passes. I just ain’t connecting. I’m not finishing. It’s just something that hurts you inside mentally and its just something you want to get better at. This is the year I’ll get better at it. This is the year that I’ll separate myself from being just a run stopper.”