Friday, March 11, 2016

2016 Free Agent Profile - Cedric Thornton, DT, Dallas

It is nice to know that free agency week is not just about teases and rumors. Sometimes, you actually add a nice piece to your team and yesterday the Cowboys did just that. Cedric Thornton has been signed for what appears to be roughly a four-year, $17 million deal. The deal includes $5M up front in a signing bonus and then base salaries of $1M, $3M, $4M, and $4M -- with the first two years ($9M fully guaranteed). The final two years will basically be team options with only the remainder of his signing bonus ($1.25M per year) as potential dead money.
Cedric is going to turn 28-years-old in June and is 6-foot-4 and around 310 pounds. He has been an Eagles force in the middle for the past four seasons out of Southern Arkansas. He is a run stopper who will play around 600 snaps as a run-down speed bump 1-technique. But, he is actually much more than that.
Nick Hayden has played this 1-technique spot for the past three seasons and has performed admirably for a player who wasn't even in the league when the Cowboys called.  But, Thornton has a much bigger and impressive toolbox.  He plays all first and second downs and has a knack for destroying outside zone blocking plays.  Now you may be wondering how this helps the pass rush - well, it really doesn't.  In nickel or passing downs, he is generally on the sideline.  He will occasionally get to the QB, but odds are you have better natural pass rushers than him.  
The price is what makes this right for me.  The Giants just paid Damon Harrison $46 million with $24 million guaranteed to do a similar job in New York.  The Giants, I guess, plan on playing Harrison and Johnathan Hankins both inside on their line which will not allow much on the ground but will certainly not get to the QB, either.  Either way, Harrison for almost $10 million a year or Thornton for $4 million?  There is no question if you are going to pay for a two-down-run-stopper, you want one but you also don't want to give them all the money.  I can't imagine the Giants are going to like that deal in 24 months.  
Either way, let's focus on Thornton.  No team has given the Cowboys' running game more problem than the Eagles.  There are many reasons for that - Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan, and the overall depth of the Eagles front as well as their willingness to play eight in the box as a general rule and take their chances with Dez Bryant (which killed them in 2014) or Terrence Williams (which sort of killed them in 2015 at their place).  But, in all four of those meetings, you can see No. 72 doing damage as he destroys run plays.  And he is constantly going up against Zack Martin to do his damage, which should tell us a few things about his ability to hold his own.  Neither guy was winning every play.  And I bet these performances against the best Dallas has to offer sold them that they should plunk down some cash to steal away a nice piece at the right price.
I went through much of his 2015 in the last day to try to demonstrate what the Cowboys surely saw that inspired them to strike at what could be a bargain in free agency.
Cedric Thornton - No. 72 - 6'4, 309 - 27-years-old
Here is a good place to start.  Look at the Panthers wanting to get on the outside with a pulling guard and get their runner into space.  Thornton - No. 72 - is not going to let that happen and see the big man turn on the wheels from defensive end.  He uses his arms to stay in front of the right guard and then displays athleticism to make the play.  Top-notch stuff, here.  
But, this right here is his specialty.  Lined up at the 1-tech between the right guard and the center, Thornton kills zone plays by finding a way through the wall and then making the play from behind or at the point of attack.  He is too quick for most interior linemen to stay in front of and he gets in and makes the tackle himself.  He kills zone plays.  I saw this repeatedly.
Zone read to his side as No. 72 lines up at DE again.  He reads the play, keeps outside leverage, and then gets in on the tackle.  Again, Hayden played hard, but he can't dream of this skill set.
Same concept against the Lions.  The right tackle is trying to get the reach block on Thornton and can't.  Thornton has the strength in his upper body to hold the opening open for himself to rush through and then track down the running back from behind to make the play.  There isn't much accomplished against the Eagles front with this type of play.  
1-technique clinic here.  Push the center right out of the way, peel back and make the tackle yourself.  There is no question that "keeping the linebackers clean" is a selling point of a proper defensive tackle from the 1-tech, but what if he just makes a bunch of tackles himself?  This should be getting you fired up by now.  
I had some people ask me to find some double teams on him and how he stands his ground.  When two 300-pound OL key on you, it is a lot to ask for a man to stand up to them, but Thornton does fine above and actually gets in on the tackle.  This is not his specialty, but he can handle it as well as Hayden can.
And others were asking about his pass rush.  Honestly, he is not a huge factor here because he has a very limited Rolodex of moves.  He has one.  It is a bull rush.  This can help collapse a pocket and get some hustle sacks/hits, but it is not why you signed him.  You signed him to shut down first and second down so that your rushers can get there on third-and-long.  He does his job quite well.
Now, here he is against Zack Martin, Doug Free, and Travis Frederick in games this year against the Cowboys:
Here is a sack from Thornton.  Don't go falling in love with them, but it has happened against the Cowboys.  It looks like Free has no idea the play started and that Romo decides not to throw a ball at the last second.  The whole play looks bizarre, but Thornton did get a sack against Romo back in September.  It happened.  
Here he is being double teamed and is battling his tail off to stay in there and ultimately to help get in on the stop after a few yards.  Again, if a team wants to double you, it is hard to affect the play, but that means you have just taken out the right guard and right tackle and your mates now have a clear path to the ball.  You did your job.
He is not perfect.  He is very good, but so is Martin.  Here, he gets out leveraged and Martin clears him right out of the screen.  Like I said, they both had their wins.  
Thornton on this play has Free on a zone left where McFadden picks a hole off of No. 72's shoulder.  Thornton again loses his man and makes the tackle himself.  He is great at winning a quick physical battle while keeping an eye on the ball carrier so that you can stop the play.
Thornton turned Martin here and closed off the flank, causing the running back to head right into the waiting arms of Bennie Logan.  Again, Thornton ends the path of this play with a really quick and athletic move around Martin but will not get a stat on this play.  He merely affects the play with his nice effort here and again, this is a club the Cowboys did not have in their bag on the interior.  
Another rare chance to pass rush from DE for No. 72 and another exhibition that he pretty much just keeps contain and uses his bullrush.  He is not much of a pass rusher unless he gets his man off-balance, but it is all power.  
This is the Eagles' bear front, which they showed the Cowboys a bit last season.  This means that the center and both guards are covered by interior Eagles (taking away the chance to double team).  Watch Thornton knock Martin right out of the way to get in on the play.  Also, notice No. 91 Fletcher Cox show that he is a superstar who can do everything Thornton can do and many things Thornton cannot.  But, Thornton was not out-classed by Martin at all.  
One more time.  Thornton versus Martin on a zone left.  McFadden follows the lead fullback and then decides to try the cutback lane.  Free doesn't help much here as he stumbles through the path and Thornton has his arms open and waiting for McFadden.  Thornton is fantastic on the backside of these zone plays and he cleans up most of them.  This also reminds us that McFadden is not great running zone plays, too.
Hopefully this study shows you some real promise here.  I think the price is great and the player has certainly shown that he can provide something the Cowboys did not have.  
He is not a world beater, but exactly the type of bargain shopping you want this time of year.  At his price of about $4 million a season, the Cowboys plugged a hole they have had for several seasons with a nice upgrade.  I like this deal quite a bit.

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