The Cowboys And The Art Of The Practice Squad

USA TODAY Sports

We tend to focus on who will make the final 53-man roster for Dallas, and treat the practice squad largely as an afterthought. But wise use of the eight positions available (and a little luck in keeping the players hidden from other teams) can pay some significant dividends.

For a lot of NFL hopefuls, the cutdowns during training camp are a crushing blow, often ending a dream of an NFL career, or for veterans, marking a possible end to their time in the league. Some can go on to catch on with other teams, but many will not see the inside of a locker room again.

But for some young players who are eligible, there is a second chance. They can hope to be signed to the team's eight-man practice squad. This keeps them in the league and gainfully employed with a decent paycheck, even if it is greatly reduced from what they would make on the roster. Most importantly, practice squads are often a prime resource for teams when they need to fill holes caused by injury, so a job there can be a stepping stone to get onto the roster after all. Although the practice squad is supposed to be a source of extra players to use in preparing during the week, it really has become more a way for teams to hang onto promising young talent that they cannot find a place for otherwise.

In checking a few details for my last post, I looked at the original practice squad coming out of the 2012 training camp. Just to refresh your memory, here are the names:

WR Danny Coale, LB Orie Lemon, RB Lance Dunbar, RB Jamize Olawale, DT Robert Callaway, DE Ben Bass, WR Tim Benford and G Ronald Leary.

That is a pretty good list of names for a bunch of "also-rans". Callaway was cut this year after being called up in 2012 after Josh Brent was arrested. He had knee surgery which probably impacted the decision. Lemon is with the Kansas City Chiefs trying to make their team, and Olawale is doing the same with the Oakland Raiders. The other five are still with Dallas, and all have a shot to make the team.

Dunbar is probably the surest bet on the list to be on the roster this year, since he replaced Felix Jones in the "change-of-pace" role last season, and all of the other running back candidates are competing as feature backs, I believe. Based on coverage of his performance in the OTAs and minicamp (and at least one flat out prediction), Leary is looking like a near-lock to make the roster, and he may break into the starting lineup. Bass got some good reviews himself and is projected as a backup rushman when the team goes into the first game.

Benford and Coale are a little longer shots. The team has four wide receivers that will be on the team if they are healthy (Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Dwayne Harris, and Terrance Williams), and Cole Beasley has the advantage of a year's experience on the roster. The competition for a fifth or possible sixth wide receiver job is going to be stiff, but Benford and Coale have that year on the practice squad in their favor. They know the offense and the coaches know them. That is pretty important.

So Dallas should have at least a couple of players from last year's original practice squad on the roster to start the season, and could have four (I really don't see how Benford and Coale could both make the final 53 - but both are still eligible for the practice squad again this season). That is a pretty good return on investment. It is actually very good, and since all but one of the players (fifth round pick Coale) were UDFAs signed by Dallas or FA's cut elsewhere in the league, it shows that, in 2012 at least, the Cowboys did a pretty good job of finding some talent outside the draft. (Much better than in 2011, for instance. No one from that initial PS is still with Dallas.)

One note: I am only talking about that initial list of names for the PS, because they all came from the roster for Dallas' training camp last year. The players picked up later in the year - and Dallas had several - tend to be available street agents, and do not provide an indication of how well the team evaluated players in the offseason, the way that first group of eight does.

This is really what the PS has become. It is not primarily about fielding some fresh legs during practice to save wear and tear on the starters, although it does still fulfill that function. Instead, it is a place the team can have players who are ready to step up, who already know the playbook and assignments. And it is a place to put someone who you think is just on the edge of being an NFL player, or maybe is ready for the job, but that you just cannot find a roster spot for.

That is where the gamesmanship of the PS comes into play. All of the players who are signed to it must first clear waivers. Last year, Dallas got all eight players it wanted through waivers and onto the team, but it doesn't always work out that way. And once on the practice squad, the players are still eligible for another team to sign. Dallas can counter, as it did last year with Leary, for instance, by putting the player on their own roster if they find out someone is interested. (I believe that is an option the team has under the CBA before it loses a PS member.) Obviously, however, they can only do that if they have a hole or are willing to cut someone currently on the 53-man roster.

You see why some NFL coaches (like one who will remain nameless despite everyone knowing I am talking about a guy with red hair who works for Jerry Jones) really, really don't want to give out any information to the press. If you have some guy sitting on your practice squad who is better than some players elsewhere in the league, you want to keep that a deep, dark secret.

Looking at the prospects this year, this year's practice squad might be a repeat of 2012. There are a lot of names out there that the Cowboys may not have room for on the roster, but that could be valuable commodities on the PS. Jakar Hamilton, Brandon Magee, Taylor Reed, Kendial Lawrence and Jared Green all look, at this point, to be excellent candidates. And for UDFAs like them, earning a spot on the PS can be crucial in keeping the NFL dream alive.

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