Though they were relatively quiet in free agency this year the Cowboys did make a significant move at defensive tackle. Dallas chose not to re-sign Nick Hayden, who'd started all but one game over the last three years, and instead brought in fifth-year veteran Cedric Thornton from Philadelphia.
Coming into the league undrafted, Thornton spent most 2011 on the practice squad. He became a regular reserve in 2012 as a backup defensive tackle. In 2013, the Eagles switched to the 3-4 scheme and Thornton emerged as a starting defensive end.
As Dallas fans know from our time with the 3-4 defense, Thornton's performance doesn't show up much in stats. He only had one sack in each of the last three years but that hasn't been his focus. As a 3-4 end, Thornton's job has been to occupy blockers to allow guys like Trent Cole, Brandon Graham, and Connor Barwin to attack the quarterback. He has been the Marcus Spears of their scheme.
Dallas thought enough of Thornton's work to give him a four-year, $17 million contract last March. That pays him a Top-15 salary for defensive tackles despite the lack of production on the stat sheet.
The Cowboys clearly believe that Thornton can thrive in their scheme. They could have made the safe and less expensive choice by bringing back Hayden but see this as an upgrade. Remember that Dallas play the Eagles twice every season, so they've spent plenty of time watching Thornton on tape.
One reason the Cowboys like Thornton is perceived versatility. Jason Garrett said the following shortly after Thornton was signed:
“We definitely see him as an interior player, but again in their scheme he's played all along their defensive line… You see him play as a zero nose. You see him play as a shade nose. You see him play as a three [technique]. You see him play as an end in their 3-4 alignment. He's been a guy who has a number of different things.”
Nick Hayden was never versatile. He was a true one-technique tackle with little to offer as a pass rusher. Dallas believes that Thornton can be used in more ways and perhaps even replace Tyrone Crawford if needed. Rod Marinelli loves versatility in players, as do all coaches, as it allows them to make optimal packages that maximize everyone's strengths.
If team are focused on on Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence as pass rushers then Thornton could see more one-on-one opportunities, especially if he's playing in the nickel package. I would expect for him to improve on his one-sack average.
The term “breakout” is relative depending on where a player already is and the role they play. For a guy like Thornton it means living up to being paid as one of the 15 best defensive tackle in the game. It means being a consistent starter who makes a visible impact on games far more than Nick Hayden did.
Based on the contract and the break from their recent status as offseason misers, Dallas clearly believes in Thornton's potential.