When all else seemed to go awry in the Eagles' locker room last season, veteran defensive tackles Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson tried encouraging Cedric Thornton. They told him next season would be his chance. Thornton and Fletcher Cox would be a part of the Eagles' future.
That future has come, and it has arrived without Jenkins and Patterson. The team moved on from both, releasing them together on Feb. 25, early enough to begin planning their next move. Both eventually signed with the New York Giants and will play the Eagles for the first time on Sunday.
The Eagles added Isaac Sopoaga to play nose tackle and drafted Bennie Logan in the third round, but it's Cox and Thornton who have been the biggest beneficiaries of the departures of Patterson and Jenkins. Cox has played 72 percent of the defensive snaps; Thornton has played 68 percent. The next highest lineman is at 68 percent.
"This game right here is a business," Cox said. The organization decided to move forward and keep me and Ced, and Ced and I felt like we had to step up."
Cox, 22, was a first-round pick in 2012 who overflowed with potential during his rookie season. His development has appeared to slow in the team's transition from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4, although the organization remains exceedingly high on him.
Thornton, 25, has ascended from practice squad to reserve to starter.
"Ithink the one thing you have to realize is Cedric Thornton is probably playing our best defensive football right now," coach Chip Kelly said.
That's encouraging praise. Then again, there isn't much for Kelly to choose from. Thornton has 16 tackles along with one sack, two hurries, and one tackle for a loss.
The Eagles moved on from Patterson because of the scheme; he didn't fit in the new 3-4 alignment. The plan all along was to replace Jenkins with Thornton, since Cox was already a starter.
Jenkins figured his days might be numbered when the coaching change was made, and players text-messaged each other to see who had heard from the new coaches. Some of the younger players said they had talked to the coaches, and Jenkins still had not.
He lived in the area, so he reached out on his own. When he went to meet with Kelly, the coach was in his office with general manager Howie Roseman. Before Jenkins walked in, Kelly asked Roseman, "Have I met him yet?"
"I knew there was probably a pretty good chance I wasn't in their plans at the moment," Jenkins said Wednesday.
Jenkins said he appreciated the way the team handled his release, and even though he had experience in the 3-4, he saw the potential of Cox and Thornton.
"Fletcher, with his size, long arms, and the way he plays, I knew Fletcher would have no problem adjusting to it," Jenkins said. "My only worry with Cedric adjusting was coming in with him, he had worked so hard with (Jim) Washburn and his system with just firing straight off the ball. ... I was hoping they would be able to adjust to it and smoothly transition to it."
Kelly called Thornton "a great technician" who is "very rarely out of position." The coach said Cox is still adjusting to the defense, which has resulted in inconsistency. There's a misconception, according to Kelly, that Cox plays two-gap on every play. And he insisted there are plays when Cox has flashed. Cox has 10 tackles, including two sacks.
"He's learning on the run," Kelly said. "Fletch has a lot of athletic ability.He can be a problem at times.At times, he's created some mismatches in there."
Cox and Thornton speak with reverence of Jenkins and Patterson, who were leaders in the defensive line room. Cox endured deaths in his family last season, and Jenkins and Patterson often checked on him.
Jenkins said players helped him out when he was coming up in the NFL, so he does the same. Now facing off against their students, he'll see Cox and Thornton as new anchors on the defensive line.
"I was prepared for it all the while," Thornton said. "Most likely you're not going to get too many opportunities, but when you do, you just want to step up to the plate. And when you don't, you don't know when that opportunity is going to come again."
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