The big deal in the offseason is of course the NFL draft. Next to that is free agency. For the Dallas Cowboys, both were wildly active and, for most of us, extremely exciting.
And then there are the undrafted free agents. UDFAs are signed after the draft to fill out the roster for OTAs and training camp. With the camp roster expanded to 90 this year, that meant a lot of bodies that had to be signed, most of which would only be with the team until the cut to 53 at the latest, with a few making it onto the practice squad and the hope of getting another look next year.
So UDFAs are not very important except for filling out the roster for camp.
Yeah, right. Not if your starting quarterback and one of your top two receivers came to the team through the UDFA route. Tony Romo and Miles Austin are the two main reasons that Dallas has a reputation for finding some hidden gems among the mass of hopefuls who don't get drafted. But they are not the only ones. Phil Costa is often maligned, but he is the incumbent starter at center and still in the thick of things this offseason. And, as Nick Eatman recounted in a post at DallasCowboys.com on his top 10 UDFAs on the Cowboys current roster, there were other, less heralded names on the 2011 team.
So what happened? Well, the Cowboys actually had five different undrafted rookies make the team last year, and would've had six had it not been for an injury to receiver Raymond Radway on the final play of the preseason. Radway, an unknown receiver from Abilene Christian, had done enough to win a job before he suffered a broken tibia and fibula in the final seconds against Miami.
Although Radway went to IR, the Cowboys still kept Dan Bailey, Phillip Tanner, Kevin Kowalski and Alex Albright on the team. Punter Chris Jones joined the squad later in the season.
Eatman's list is worth a read, but I have my own ideas along those lines. This is a lot of guesswork at this time, but based on what came out of the practices so far, I think some UDFAs are particularly worthy of attention when the team gets to Oxnard.
See my names, plus some of what passes for reasoning with me, after the jump.
This is a good year to be a hungry UDFA with the Cowboys, because the team is in the midst of a serious youth/RKG reworking. With Jason Garrett's visible commitment to competition up and down the roster, there are opportunities for almost any position.
It is not all good, however. The team, or at least the fanbase, is very high on the seven draftees. If they are as successful as we hope they will be, they will take as many as seven spots. UDFAs can also hope to make the practice squad, but I am more interested in players that want to make the 53 - which, I think it is safe to say, would include all the players coming to training camp.
Here are the players, in no particular order, who I think will be in the discussion when the team makes those final cuts.
Ronald Leary G He of the infamous knee problems. Jerry Jones made a point of talking about what a steal he is. Leary claims that the knees are not an issue. I think he is right. Having knee issues is a problem for many, even most, NFL linemen. Leary may lose some years on the back end of his career - but if he were to give five or six seasons to the Cowboys, he would be a great find indeed. With the surgery to Mackenzy Bernadeau and Kevin Kowalski's injury, he was able to get some snaps with the first team - and reports are he put the opportunity to good use. And if there is anyplace on the Cowboys that an emerging talent will get people excited, it is the interior of the offensive line.
Harland Gunn G Less heralded than Leary, Gunn also benefited from some extra chances to work with the front-runners. He is a longer shot than Leary, but nobody has been in pads yet, and he has a shot. Injuries would probably play a role in him making the team, which is not a good thing, but it would be better to have an answer for that unwanted contingency already available than to have to turn to the castoffs from the rest of the league.
Cole Beasley WR He may have gotten the most media coverage in the OTAs and minicamps. He undoubtedly had a door opened by Danny Coale's broken foot, but would probably have gotten some attention even if Coale had been on the field. The wide receiver field is wide open, with the team needing to fill three and possibly four positions. His receiving skills were evident, and he may also be a kick or punt return possibility.
Adrian Hamilton OLB College performance does not always translate into the NFL. But 22 sacks in one year? That's ridiculous, in a totally good way. Somebody was going to give Hamilton a chance, and I am very glad it turned out to be Dallas. I think he has an excellent chance of making the team, and the only sad thing is that it will probably be at the expense of Alex Albright's spot on the team. It will be sad to see one UDFA push another one out the door, but that is the price of churning the roster.
Lance Dunbar RB Another case of UDFA fratricide, since Dunbar is seen as aiming to take Phillip Tanner's spot as the third running back. But maybe the team will go deep and keep the small, speedy, and elusive Dunbar, who looks to be a Felix Jones type runner, where Tanner is more like DeMarco Murray (at least to my sometimes blurred eyes).
Isaac Madison CB I'm going to say it now. I think that Mike Jenkins is not going to make it to September 5th with the Cowboys. You may call me on that if I am wrong, but the man is putting way too much effort into getting the team to let him go. He is swimming upstream like a desperate salmon against almost everything Jason Garrett is trying to do. And that opens up another spot for a cornerback. Madison is making an excellent case to fill that spot, and I have said before that the defensive backs are one group of players that you can get a decent feel for in the no-contact drills. He seems to feel really good.
Lionel Smith CB If Madison doesn't make it, then Smith is the next man up. Madison is seen as a bit light for the position, and Smith is a little heavier and an inch taller. The media writers seemed to see these two in very close to a dead heat, and that inch of height may be very important.
Those are the top names for me. There are others, but I see them as primarily PS material. That's just my opinion, of course. Now, the question becomes how many UDFAs will make it through the final cuts? Looking at some final 53 man projections, as wildly premature as they are, and working through my own ideas, I keep thinking three of these guys make it. Which is still important.
Ask Tony and Miles.