Dallas Cowboys Undrafted Free Agents: How Much Will They Get Paid?

Before signing a mega-bucks deal with the Cowboys, Miles Austin was an undrafted free agent signed to a modest UDFA contract.

The Cowboys have signed 21 undrafted free agents so far this year. Over the last couple of days, we've looked at each of these UDFAs in our position profile series (OL, CB, TE, RB and DE) and even picked our pet cats from their ranks.

Like every year, these players will fight hard and give everything they have to make the final 53 man roster of the Dallas Cowboys. Like every year, most of them will not make it. Realistically, many UDFAs are battling for a spot on the practice squad, and even that option will be out of reach for most of them.

These guys will play their hearts out, subject their bodies to tremendous physical abuse and go through enormous mental stress every time the roster sizes are reduced, first to 75 on August 28 following preseason week 3, and finally to 53 players on August 31.

Have you ever wondered how much they get paid for this?

Before we get into the details of how much they get paid, let's look at what could potentially await them, if they make the final roster.

Below are the salary values of last year's Cowboys rookie class, split by 2011 base salary and signing bonus.

Name Position Draft Round 2011 Salary Signing Bonus
Tyron Smith OT 1 (9)
$375k $7,588k
Bruce Carter LB 2 (40)
$375k $2,030k
DeMarco Murray RB 3 (71) $375k $742k
David Arkin OG 4 (110) $375k $635k
Dwayne Harris WR 6 (176) $375k $197k
Shaun Chapas FB 7 (220) $375k $57k
Bill Nagy OG 7 (252) $375k $46k

All the rookies who made the Cowboys' Active/Inactive List (basically the 53 man roster plus players on Injured Reserve and Physically Unable to Play) were signed to the rookie minimum contract with a salary of $375k and were given a signing bonus largely determined by which spot they were drafted in. At first glance, it may look strange that all rookies are getting the same base salary, but that has to do with the accounting rules surrounding the Rookie Compensation Pool and the Rule Of 51.

Rookies signed to the practice squad made significantly less: Mario Butler for example, who spent the whole year on the practice squad, was due a minimum salary of $96,900 for the 2011 season.

So making the 53 man roster is financially more rewarding than making the practice squad. No big surprise there. But how much do the players make on their way to one of these roster spots? Here's where we break it down.

NFL Contract Structure

A rookie who makes the 53-man roster this year will get a rookie salary of $390,000 in 2012. But there's a catch. NFL players only get paid during the regular season. Base salaries (Paragraph 5 salaries) in the NFL are paid in 17 installments over the course of the regular season. Not before. If you're an UDFA looking to get rich fast, the NFL may not be the best place for you.

Joining the Cowboys

Once a rookie free agent signs a contract, he usually receives a small bonus. These bonuses are mostly in the $3,000 to $5,000 range, but if a particular free agent is heavily sought after by a number of NFL teams, that bonus may go up as far as $20,000. Per the new CBA, only a maximum of about $75,000 per team may be paid to undrafted rookies as signing bonus or amounts treated as signing bonus. That figure will increase or decrease each year in line with the percentage change of the total Rookie Compensation Pool.

Signing bonuses, as the name implies, are paid out immediately after the contract is signed. After that, the UDFAs have to make do with "per diem expenses".

Off-Season Workouts and Minicamps:

All players attending an off-season workout or minicamp, like the rookie minicamp starting today, get a per diem of $155 per day. All this is provided as per the NFLPA contract and is the standard procedure that's designed partly to provide the players some remuneration, and partly to avoid teams outbidding each other for rookie free agents.

NFL CBA, Article 21, Section 3: "Each player shall receive at least the following amounts per day for any workouts or classroom instruction in which he participates pursuant to a Club’s voluntary offseason workout program, provided the player fulfills the Club’s reasonable offseason workout requirements: $155 (2011–12 League Years)."

Additionally, all players receive room and board during these activities.

Training Camp

Once training camp starts, all rookies (drafted and undrafted) get per diem payments at the rate of $850 a week, which isn't that bad considering that housing and meals are provided by the Cowboys. Veterans get slightly more at $1,600 a week. These payments end one week before the regular season opener, and base salaries then commence in 17 installments over the course of the regular season.

NFL CBA, Article 23:

Rookie Per Diem: "A first-year player will receive “per diem” payments, commencing with the first day of Preseason Training Camp and ending one week prior to the Club’s first regular season game, at the following weekly rates for the respective League Years: $850 (2011–12 League Years)."

Veteran Per Diem: "A veteran player will receive “per diem” payments, commencing with the first day of Preseason Training Camp and ending one week prior to the Club’s first regular season game, at the following weekly rates for the respective League Years: $1,600 (2011–12 League Years)."

Making the roster

If they make the 53 man roster, the UDFAs get the rookie minimum of $390,000 or 1/17th of that as a check every week, as long as they keep their roster spot. Additionally, they may get a small ('small' relative to the base salary) signing bonus, but this will be lower than the bonuses received by the drafted players.

If they get signed to a spot on the 8-man practice squad, they are paid a minimum salary of $5,700 per week, or $96,900 over the full regular season if they keep their spot on the practice squad. If a team makes the playoffs, these payments continue for as long as the team is in the playoffs. To protect their players from other teams, or because they really like the potential of a given player, some teams pay their roster squad players significantly more. Last season for example, the Patriots paid DE Markell Carter a practice squad salary of $306,000, more than three times the minimum.

The upside of the practice squad is that if a player is called up to the 53-man regular roster, either by his own team or by another team, he automatically signs a contract with the $390,000 minimum salary. Also, three weeks of that contract are guaranteed (3/17th of $390,000 = $68,800), even if that player is released, waived or traded before the three weeks are up.

It's going to be tough for any of the 21 UDFAs to make the Cowboys' roster - think of it as an all expenses paid boot camp - but if they end up signing a contract with the Cowboys, they'll get paid handsomely. They won't be able to go out and buy a private jet right away, but they'll probably be making more money than most of their college classmates.

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