Clayton Thorson’s first weekend in an Eagles uniform might have felt familiar. He was the top quarterback in the rookie minicamp, with the attention on his commanding the huddle and calling plays during three practices with teammates all taking part in the NFL’s version of freshman orientation.
That will change Tuesday, when class is in session while the Eagles begin their organized team activities with the entire roster. They have 10 voluntary practices during the next three weeks before a mandatory minicamp from June 11 to 13, when Thorson will assume a role unfamiliar to the 23-year-old who was a four-year starter at Northwestern.
Thorson will be at the bottom of the depth chart. Carson Wentz is the top quarterback, with Nate Sudfeld and Cody Kessler behind him. Although the Eagles like Thorson’s talent and potential, their hope is he’ll never need to start a meaningful game in Philadelphia. That would mean Wentz has remained healthy.
“Carson’s the guy,” Thorson said. “To learn about this offense from a guy who’s an MVP candidate every year, it’s such a good opportunity for me. So I’m really just looking forward to that.”
The players wearing red jerseys at Eagles practice are scrutinized every year, and there will be no shortage of intrigue during the next few months.
Wentz is recovering from a stress fracture in his back and his season was halted in December for the second consecutive year.
Sudfeld, who has only 25 career pass attempts, will try to replace Nick Foles as the No. 2 quarterback – an important role any season but magnified this year because of Wentz’s injury history and the legacy that Foles left in Philadelphia.
Kessler, who has 12 career starts and was a third-round pick in 2016, offers an experienced alternative.
And then there’s Thorson, who could be viewed as a luxury pick in a year when the Eagles made only five selections. That should be enough evidence of what the Eagles think about him.
At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Thorson has appealing size and mobility. With a Big Ten-record 53 career starts, he led Northwestern to a bowl game in all four seasons he played and became the school’s all-time leading passer.
He’s the first quarterback the Eagles have drafted since taking Wentz in 2016, meaning it’s just the second time that coach Doug Pederson had a chance to hand-pick a rookie passer.
“This kid’s tough and he fits exactly what we look for in a quarterback,” Pederson said. “Arm strength, decision-making, the ability to extend plays, and he’s going to fit really well with that room.”
That last part is more than a platitude. Before the draft, owner Jeffrey Lurie said a key factor in the Eagles’ decision to draft a quarterback would be whether they believe that player could assimilate to the quarterback meeting room. The Eagles saw the synergy of Wentz, Foles, and Sudfeld during the last two seasons, and want that to remain for Wentz.
Thorson’s on board. He and Wentz exchanged text messages after the draft and he met Sudfeld last week.
“I think just being myself and learning from those guys, I think that’s the biggest thing, is having humility,” Thorson said. “Knowing I don’t know everything.”
During Wentz’s first spring and summer with the team, one of the challenges he encountered was blending into the background after being the face of his college program.
Of course, Wentz was only biding his time – he knew he was viewed as the franchise quarterback. Thorson’s entire Eagles career might be spent in the background. He said he would speak up when he can make his teammates better, although he’s aware of his role.
During Thorson’s first weekend with the team, Pederson wanted to see how Thorson would adapt to parts of the Eagles offense, a judgment that could not be made simply by watching him throw at the combine. The coach wanted to see the rookie process the play, call it in the huddle, get the players lined up at the line of scrimmage, use the correct cadence, analyze the defense, and know where to deliver the ball.
“The things we do at this level, a lot of these college guys, especially at the quarterback position, have done,” Thorson said. “It's just a matter of picking up the terminology and now being able to kind of do that in the huddle setting with different guys.”
The Eagles believe Thorson can outplay his fifth-round draft status. Top executive Howie Roseman said that when the Eagles selected him, he received text messages from coaches and executives around the league complimenting him on the pick.
The thinking was that Thorson is better than how he looked during his senior season, which started eight months after he tore his ACL in December 2017. (A quarterback who tore his ACL in 2017 and the Eagles think he’s better than he looked last season – sound familiar?)
“What I keep hearing is the second year out from the ACL is just so much better,” Thorson said. “I feel better right now, actually. Doing a seven-step drop, doing a plant and going upfield, I just feel so much better. I think that will continue to improve.”
Despite the torn ACL, Thorson never missed a start in college. He had a career-high 15 interceptions as a senior, although he also had his best completion percentage and most rushing touchdowns.
When the 53 career starts were brought up to Thorson, he took more pride in the 36 wins. By his junior season, he already had more wins than any quarterback in program history.
The Wildcats were 5-7 in the two years before he became the starter, and they had four winning seasons and two 10-win seasons with Thorson at quarterback. They even reached the Big Ten championship game, winning their division over Wisconsin and Iowa.
Thorson wasn’t satisfied with the 36 wins – he said the number should have been 44.
“There was more on the table,” he said, adding that starting all those games “doesn’t matter if you lose them all.”
Thorson said the system he ran at Northwestern will make the learning curve less steep than it is for others. He became the third Wildcats quarterback drafted this decade. He also think there’s a benefit learning from Pederson, considering the coach’s background at the position.
This coaching staff has taken pride in the environment it has created for quarterbacks, and now it gets one to develop again. Even though he’ll be on the bottom of the depth chart, Thorson’s progress will be a point of emphasis.