Dallas did not have much cap space to work with last Spring but made a few moves to try and help the defense. Their single biggest signing was a four-year, $17 million contract for veteran lineman Cedric Thornton.
Going into the 2016 offseason, the Cowboys knew they needed an upgrade at defensive tackle. Nick Hayden had been a starter for three years and, while a hard worker and reliable, was not any kind of pass-rushing threat or all that great against the run. Dallas wanted a more threatening presence on the line next to Tyrone Crawford.
After five years with the Eagles, the last three as a starter, Cedric Thornton was not a glamorous free agent but a solid one. Having played both as a 4-3 tackle but also a 3-4 defensive end in Philadelphia, Thornton’s versatility was intriguing to the Cowboys. They wanted a guy who could hold up against the run but also cause some disruption.
Six months later and Thornton isn’t filling the role that was expected. He is the fourth man in the DT rotation, making starter money but not serving in that capacity. He is playing behind another veteran, Terrell McClain, and third-round rookie Maliek Collins.
That doesn’t mean the Thornton signing was a mistake. It made perfect sense at the time.
Before this year Terrell McClain had chronic injury problems. He would have strong camps and preseasons but then wind up hobbled before September. Dallas couldn’t count on him to finally come through as Nick Hayden’s replacement.
Dallas didn’t draft Maliek Collins until seven weeks after signing Thornton. They had no way of knowing that they’d come out of the draft with a rookie DT capable of playing significant reps, let alone being able to start.
Thornton’s slide to the bottom of the depth chart isn’t a knock him. It’s brought on by unforeseen circumstances. McClain is finally delivering on expectations and Collins is looking like a third-round steal. The result is the deepest DT rotation that the Cowboys have had in a long time.
Of course, you look at the money paid to Cedric Thornton and wish it had gone elsewhere. Dallas could have put those funds towards a pass rusher, perhaps combining it with the money paid to Benson Mayowa to bring in a player of real consequence.
Despite this 2016 issue, the Thornton signing could work out in the long run. Terrell McClain is an unrestricted free agent next year and will be 29-years-old. Despite his good play now, Dallas may not want to give him a long-term deal as he moves into his thirties. Thornton can move back into a larger role.
We’ve had plenty of times as Cowboys fans to look back on offseason moves and shake our heads. While this one may not have worked out the way everyone expected, you can’t lay blame on anyone involved. It was the right move at the time.