Free agency can result in big pay increases, new teammates, a new playbook, and a lot of anxiety and excitement for an NFL player the first time he hits the open market. For others, it's a time of uncertainty as they wait for the phone to ring to see if they will still have the opportunity to play in the NFL.
Former Cincinnati Bengals defensive lineman John Thornton went through the process back in 2003 after four years with the Titans. And now, after a successful six-year run with the Bengals, he'll be available to meet with teams and listen to offers once again.
During his ten-year career, Thorton has logged 251 tackles, 27.5 sacks, defensed 16 passes, and intercepted a pass. Along the way, he's gained valuable experience as both a defensive tackle and a defensive end that he's been able to share with younger players.
Although he's clearly excited about the possibilities that lie ahead of him, Thornton has a different perspective on free agency this time. During an exclusive Scout.com interview, we explored how his NFL career to date, his dedication to family and community service, and his expectations for the future will impact his decisions.
Ed Thompson: Looking back to when you were drafted by Tennessee in the second round of the 1999 NFL Draft, you had the opportunity to be part of a team that went all the way to the Super Bowl. Does that seem like a long time ago or are those memories still vivid?
John Thornton:: It's seems like a long time ago, ten years ago. I played well my rookie year, and team-wise, we had one of the best records in the league going to the Super Bowl. Each year it becomes more and more of a distant memory, but it's a good memory. Whenever the Super Bowl comes around, you always think back to when you were there, and kind of put yourself in the shoes of the guys who got to go there this year. And you're kind of envious of the players that are there because you got to experience that before.
Thompson: Let's talk about one more memory from your Tennessee years that has to have stuck with you and that is certainly a unique one for a lineman. You ran a kickoff back for 16 yards.
John Thornton hits Steelers QB Tommy Maddox as he tries to throw back in 2002.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
John Thornton: (laughing) The Redskins kicked it off and I think the guy miss-hit it or something, but it was like a line-drive that was going over my head—and something just told me to reach up and get it. I actually made a good catch. It was like an all-hands catch way over my head, so I jumped up, got it and decided to run. I made one move. I remember I made one cut and got past somebody, and then I could hear coaches on the sideline saying, "get down!" That was a Monday night game, so I remember that one pretty well.
Thompson: Before we talk about your Cincinnati years, I wanted to take a moment to congratulate you on being your team's nominee for the 2008 Bart Starr award.
John Thornton: Thank you, I appreciate it.
Thompson: I've been really impressed by the great work you've done in your community. Talk a little bit about the wonderful work you are doing with autism.
John Thornton: That started back in Nashville. My wife was a child development major in college. We got pregnant when she was still in college, so when she came down to Nashville she was fresh out of college. We had our first son, and at first we thought he was autistic because he had some sensory issues as an infant, but he kind of grew out of some things. We just thought that all the people at the Autism Society were really helpful and that we should do something to help. We set up a big dinner at Morton's The Steakhouse, for a charity event. And then we did "Bowling For Autism" my last year in Tennessee. The day after I signed in Cincinnati, I called the Autism Society and was like, "Hey, I'm a new player in town and I want to help. I want to have a bowling event in your name." They were excited and it's been a great relationship. We've done some other events over the years, but our "Bowling For Autism" is every June, and I'm going to have that every year whether I'm here or not. It's been a good relationship with the Autism Society.
Thompson: What was it like for you, going through free agency for the first time back in 2003?
John Thornton: Well, just leaving Tennessee—you're somewhere for four years and it's your first four years—you know that organization has a perception of you, whether good or bad, they have a perception of you and that's who you are. Once you get out into free agency, you have no idea of who's going to call. And no matter what your agent says, once the free agency clock strikes, it's like, "OK, where are they?" So when that happened, one of the first calls that was made to me was from Marvin Lewis. He called me and was like, "Hey, I want you to visit Cincinnati and hopefully I can be your coach someday." And this is a guy that I've respected and I've watched his teams play. Then, the Patriots had me come in and visit. Then, I went out to Arizona. Teams get interested in you and it takes on a whole new light, because until they all actually make the contact with you it's all just hearsay. It was good for me to get out there and have other people tell me they've been thinking of me, like having Bill Belichick tell me that he's watched my game since I came into the league. He knew everything about me and how I played. When guys that you respect start saying good things about you—and you can tell they really watched the film—it really means a lot to you as a player.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Thompson: Is Bill Belichick a guy that you think you might hear something from this time around?
John Thornton: I don't know. I really don't have any kind of idea what's going to happen this time around. It's a little different than it was six years ago because you're obviously younger and kind of eager to go somewhere. You're at a different stage in your life. Now, I'm a little more settled. I'm not sure what's going to happen, but I'm not going to let myself go crazy like last time, calling my agent every day. I'm at the age where I want to go somewhere that's a good situation for me, is a good team and a team that has a chance to win. I mean, if the Patriots would call, that would definitely be a great situation. I almost went there the first time and that would definitely be a good situation for me. I played a lot of defensive end and defensive tackle, and they like to move their guys around. Who wouldn't want to play for New England?
Thompson: Let's talk a little bit about your opportunity to play some defensive end. Is it true that you suggested to the team that they move you from tackle to end to let Pat Sims have some playing time? Or how did all that transpire?
John Thornton: Well, we were 0-7 at the time and playing Houston. I was at a point where I was just playing first and second down, primarily a run-defender for the last three years. I kind of understood how teams when they were losing would start playing younger players anyway. I figured they had to see what Pat could do for them next year, so in that game, one of our players got hurt and they put me in on third-down situations. I started playing a lot of third downs and Pat played on first and second. I had a good game and thought I played well. After that game, I told my D-line coach not to be afraid to put Pat in there a little bit more on run downs. I actually wanted to play a little bit more on third down. At times, they put me back in there to start if Pat didn't practice well that week. So I was like a security blanket, but at the same time I think it helped our third-down percentage with getting off the field. I thought it was a good move for both of us.
Thompson: Sounds like you've got a the right outlook and personality to not only be a great team member, but also be an effective mentor to some of these younger guys. Undoubtedly, I'm sure you've done some of that in Cincinnati.
John Thornton: Yeah, definitely. I felt like that was my role this year. After we released Willie Anderson, I ended up being the oldest guy on the team— myself and Reggie Kelly. So, I was the oldest guy all the sudden and guys looked at me in that capacity. I like that role. If you've got good, young guys that want to learn and guys that respect you as a veteran, you don't have a problem doing that at all. That's why I didn't have problem letting Pat Sims play a little bit more, because he was a respectable guy and he knew his role as a rookie and he played hard. I like that. That's how I was in Tennessee. When I got there, there were guys like Mike Jones, Henry Ford, Jason Fisk, and Josh Evans. Those guys took me under there wing. Even though I was playing in front of these guys most the time, I still treated them like the veterans and still listened to them.Scout.com subscribers can read the rest of this interview with John Thornton by clicking here. You'll learn about his thoughts on a nearby team that could be a good fit for him, how much longer he sees himself playing pro football, the likelihood that he'll be returning to the Bengals in 2009, and much more.
Click here to go to John Thornton's player profile page at Scout.com.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com. You can follow him on Twitter for NFL updates and insights. And you can contact him by email through this link.