The Eagles originally signed Cedric Thornton in 2011 as an undrafted free agent out of Southern Arkansas. (USA Today Images)
The Eagles made their first move on defense Monday, signing defensive lineman Cedric Thornton to a one-year deal.
Thornton, who played defensive end and nose tackle and emerged as one of the NFL’s top run-stopping linemen, was an exclusive rights free agent, which means he had accrued two NFL seasons after going undrafted in 2011 out of Southern Arkansas.
As an exclusive rights free agent, Thornton was required to accept the Eagles’ one-year offer of the three-year minimum ($645,000) or retire, per rules of the collective bargaining agreement negotiated in 2011.
Exclusive rights free agents aren’t allowed to field offers from other teams, so the “free agent” label is somewhat misleading.
Thornton, 25, combined with rookie Bennie Logan and second-year pro Fletcher Cox to comprise the team’s young, blossoming, three-man defensive line in the 3-4 scheme implemented last year by new coach Chip Kelly and defensive coordinator Billy Davis.
It’s very likely that all three will return as starters unless the Eagles can find a young, starting defensive lineman on the market who’s willing to accept a modest salary and would be an upgrade over Thornton.
Thornton, 25, battled with Vinny Curry, Clifton Geathers and rookie free agent Damion Square last summer in training camp and won the starting job at right defensive end. Previously groomed as a situational pass-rushing interior lineman, Thornton added some pounds and flourished in his new role, alternating between nose tackle and end.
Towards the end of the season, Logan took over as the full-time nose and Thornton mainly played defensive end. He finished the year with a defensive-line leading 78 tackles, including five for a loss.
Pro Football Focus rated Thornton as the league’s third-best 3-4 defensive end against the run, behind Pro Bowler J.J. Watt and the Jets’ Sheldon Richardson, who won Defensive Rookie of the Year. Thornton registered just one sack, but it came against Peyton Manning.
Thornton is the rare rookie free agent to become an impact starter. He’s one of only five players in NFL history to have attended Division II Southern Arkansas. He was a two-year starter with the Muleriders and earned first-team All-America honors as a junior in 2009.
In college, Thornton caught the attention of Bill Parcells, who recommended to his agent, Jimmy Sexton, that he sign the raw lineman. Thornton made the Eagles’ 53-man roster after his rookie training camp but was released shortly after the cutdown deadline and spent the rest of his first season on the practice squad.