By ROB MAADDI
AP Pro Football Writer
PHILADELPHIA — While 254 players were selected in the 2011 NFL draft, Cedric Thornton waited for a phone call that never came.
He makes 31 teams wish they picked him every week.
After being passed up in the draft, Thornton signed a free-agent deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. He’s gone from undrafted rookie to one of the best defensive players on a first-place team.
Thornton has thrived in his first year playing defensive end in a 3-4 system. He’s fifth on the team with 69 tackles and Pro Football Focus rates as the NFC’s best run-stopping end in a 3-4 defense.
“I look at every opportunity to be better than a person drafted before me or the person that played my position that’s considered elite,” Thornton said. “I have a first-round draft pick (Fletcher Cox) playing next to me, so he motivates me, too. Only I can dictate what happens to my career, whether I play at an elite level on Sunday or I get dominated. It can go either way. The ball is in my hand and I try to do everything possible to be successful.”
Thornton had to overcome long odds, beginning his journey to the pros as a standout player at Division II Southern Arkansas. He was a two-year starter and earned first-team All-America honors as a junior.
Thornton went to the NFL scouting combine, but didn’t register high grades. His 40-yard dash time (5.25) was tied for fourth worst among defensive tackles. His bench press (23) was tied for third lowest.
“Coming from a Division II school, we didn’t have all the programs and facilities they have at Division I, so I just had to work harder,” Thornton said.
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman had his eyes on Thornton and targeted him right away after the draft was completed. Roseman enjoys telling a story about going to the team’s practice facility to work out on a holiday and seeing Thornton already there.
“I just had my eyes on the prize, knowing that when I got my opportunity, I wanted to be ready, and I just work hard every chance possible,” Thornton said.
It’s that work ethic that impresses coaches and has Thornton playing at a Pro Bowl level.
“He’s a hard worker,” defensive coordinator Billy Davis said. “Cedric’s had to work for everything he’s ever gotten. He just puts his head down and works every day. He takes a lot of pride in every rep he has. He’s playing at a very high level for what we’re asking him to do.”
Coach Chip Kelly often singles out Thornton for his excellent play. Though he only has one sack — against Peyton Manning in Week 4 — Kelly considered Thornton the team’s best pass rusher, too.
“He always seems to be around the ball no matter if it’s a run or pass,” Kelly said. “He’s a real technician and has really bought into what we’re doing.”
Forty-four defensive linemen were chosen in the 2011 draft, including 12 in the first round. Five more were picked in Round 2. One of those guys, defensive tackle Marvin Austin, the 52nd overall pick by the New York Giants, is out of football. Others drafted in lower rounds also aren’t in the league.
That’s just added motivation for Thornton.
“I think anybody that played at high level in college thinks they’re going to get drafted,” he said. “I definitely thought so, whether it was third round, mid-round or later. But every day I look at it as I have to play better than every person drafted at my position. It’s an opportunity to show teams they should’ve drafted me and I’m better than the guy they drafted.”
Thornton has a quiet, low-key personality. He grew up in a small town in Arkansas and spent six summers during his childhood picking peas by hand for 12 hours a day at a $50 daily wage. His father, Nathaniel, is a pastor, and his mother, Angela, is a minister. Thornton sang in his church’s choir and his faith is an important part of his life. It’s certainly helped him mature as a player, too.
“Christianity is all about faith and believing in something you never saw,” Thornton said. “I didn’t see myself as a Pro Bowl player but I definitely think I have the talent and the skills to be one. I believe in myself and I stay consistent.”