BETHLEHEM – The Eagles' deepest position is their defensive line, but that didn't make Jim Washburn less concerned when he heard Mike Patterson would sit out training camp, while Patterson's skull healed from surgery to untangle blood vessels.
"He's a constant. Every time I turn on the film on Monday, I know he's going to play good," said Washburn, the defensive-line coach. "He's a constant guy. Might not make a million plays, but he's always where he's supposed to be and always doing the right thing." Amid last year's early defensive chaos, "that was a wonderful feeling, to have a guy in there you knew was going to play the same every week.
"It's hard to stomach a loss like that. Hopefully, he'll be back sooner than later."
Patterson has missed only two games since arriving in the first round in 2005, the draft position making him the longest-tenured Eagle over the other '05 arrival, offensive lineman Todd Herremans, drafted in the fourth round. One of the games Patterson missed came when Andy Reid rested his starters. The other was last season's meaningless finale, when Patterson had the flu.
Washburn likes 2011 practice-squadder Cedric Thornton, and good spring work started to revise his opinion of vet Antonio Dixon, who showed up way out of shape after the lockout last year, Washburn said, and eventually went down for the season with a triceps tear.
"Nobody ever talks about [Thornton]," said Washburn, who clearly wanted to remedy that. "He's big, strong, tough, just raw, doesn't know he doesn't know. Wants to be a football player . . . He's another great kid. That room's just full of great kids."
Thornton, 6-4, 309, played at Southern Arkansas. He was promoted to the roster for the final three games of the 2011 season, for safekeeping during the time when teams start poaching other teams' practice-squad guys for future use. He is scheduled to report with the bulk of the veterans Wednesday afternoon.
Dixon is to report then, as well. He was a solid rotational player in 2009 and 2010, the best Eagles defensive lineman at stopping the run, but that was before Washburn arrived. What Washburn saw in 2011 didn't make much of an impression.
"He was so heavy and out of shape, I couldn't even tell what he was," Washburn recalled. "It was disgusting."
Washburn said he didn't really blame Dixon; the NFL lockout was hardest on linemen, who could hardly get together and pass rush or tackle on their own. But Washburn said he was surprised by the Dixon he encountered this spring.
"It's unbelievable. I'm so excited about him," Washburn said. "Getting himself in shape and making a commitment. I'll give you two words: Barry Rubin."
Rubin is the Eagles' strength and conditioning coach.
Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, who took over last year, had a similar take.
Castillo said Dixon is "down to maybe 330 from 360 or whatever it was." Castillo also called Dixon "a real guy."
Now that camps are starting, there is a 3-day "step-up" period for signees – they count toward the 90-man roster right away but can't practice for 3 days … The only rookie named as a starter right now is second-round strongside linebacker Mychal Kendricks. "He was athletic. He was relentless. He's a guy you don't want to meet in a back alley," defensive coordinator Juan Castillo said, when asked what attracted the Birds to Kendricks. "He's got that look, and he's a great kid."