It really started with Anthony Spencer, although he didn't sign his contract until later. The first time it was clearly noticeable was when the Dallas Cowboys picked up Henry Melton in free agency. It continued during the UDFA signings with Chris Whaley, and then back to free agency with Amobi Okoye and Ryan Williams. It seems to be a new paradigm for Dallas: Find injured players who showed significant talent, now appear to be healthy or are expected to recover in the future, and get then with contracts that are very team friendly.
For those who remember past misadventures with banged up players, this may bring up some bad memories of draft choices that did not make it onto the field and such, but if you take a closer look at what the team is doing, this makes a lot of sense. And although the players I mentioned above all fall into this general group, they also represent different scenarios.
Spencer is being reported to be headed directly to the physically unable to perform list (PUP). In this case, he would probably go to the preseason PUP, not only because he is very unlikely to be able to practice to start training camp, but because that way he could be reinstated at any time. (For a quick definition of the two different categories of PUP, you can check what out sister site Niners Nation posted last year.) Putting him on the preseason PUP means that at any time he would be deemed ready to go, he could be brought back immediately. In real terms, this would mean he would now be able to practice and play, which might mean he would need a week or two to get ready to take the field, but you could do this in week one or week seventeen.
PUP only applies to players who have not practiced from the start of training camp. One practice, and they cannot go on either list. However, the new rule changes allow the team to put a player on injured reserve and bring him back after six weeks, so now there is a great deal more flexibility for teams.
Another player who is probably going to join Spencer on PUP is Chris Whaley. The UDFA out of Texas has been termed a way of "putting away our nuts" by Jerry Jones. What he meant in this awkward attempt at folksy wisdom was that Dallas was going to sign Whaley with an eye to the future. The team would be content with putting him through a year of rehab and then having him in the mix for defensive tackle in 2015. It lets him work out and rehab in the team facilities, under the watchful eye of the strength and conditioning coaches - who will be able to make sure the rest of the staff has an accurate picture of how things are progressing.
The rest are hopefully going to make it into training camp. But if things don't go well between now and then, there is a fallback for them with the PUP and IR routes.
It is important that players being held in reserve like this are not expensive. Last year Spencer cost the Cowboys over $10 million for basically nothing on the field. Now he is guaranteed only $1.25 million, and Whaley will be getting a rookie minimum contract. We have already seen how Cowboys-friendly Melton's deal is. You can be sure that Williams and Okoye are likewise being signed to contracts that Dallas can easily absorb if the players wind up spending all or most of the season on PUP or IR. Low cost, no real risk to the team, they only count against the 53-man roster if they are able to play, and all have a potentially high ceiling for the Cowboys. Even if some never recover, the risk would be worth the reward if Dallas gets a couple of solid performers out of this group. With the decisions to let all IR players return after six weeks added to the PUP rules, even players who are not ready to go at the start of the season, or even the start of training camp, can become valuable replacements in mid or late season.
I don't know if this is a result of Will McClay's growing influence with the team, but it does seem likely he was involved in at least identifying these players as ones that were worth a bit of risk. Even if none of these players is a real contributor to the Cowboys this season, the team spends relatively little money this season with no dead money issues. It is about as safe a move as anything you can do, with high possible returns. Just smart football. That is something those who remember how Dallas used to be run are still trying to wrap their heads around.