After a season of impoverished offensive line play, the Cowboys have received a recent boost, which was manifest most obviously last Sunday against the Steelers. There are many factors in their (we hope permanent) turnaround; the one I'd like to focus on today is the development of offensive tackle Jermey Parnell. When the Cowboys scooped up the former SEC basketball player from the Saints practice squad in October 2010, it went largely unnoticed, as Dallas was mired in a terrible start and embattled head coach Wade Phillips was on the brink of getting Jerry Jones' well-tailored boot permanently etched on his backside.
Parnell hung around the bottom of the roster for a while, and began to emerge as a legitimate player only this year. In training camp, his athleticism was evident, but it remained to be seen whether he was strong or tough enough to be a starting NFL tackle--especially a "strong side," or right, tackle. Now, after some time on the "53," Parnell is making a run at RT Doug Free's starting job, and could well go into next year as the starter on the strong side. He has demonstrated a combination of good feet, strength and nastiness that is sure to benefit him at the position.
I bring up Parnell because he serves as a superb example of a specific NFL talent acquisition and roster building avenue. Russ Lande, the National Football Post's new draft guru (Wes Bunting was offered and accepted a position working for an NFL team), recently penned a column on practice squad players worth stealing. As a preamble, Lande, who has worked in several NFL front offices, wrote:
As we enter the final month of the season, this is the time when well-run organizations start putting some backup players on injured reserve in order to create space on the active roster to steal a few practice squad players from other teams.
Indeed, this is exactly what Dallas has done of late. As an unprecendented number of Cowboys have been added to IR, their roster sports have been taken by a combination of home-grown practice squadders, veteran street free agents, and guys from other teams' practice squads.
This third category is the most interesting. According to the CBA, "a player under contract to a club as a Practice Squad player is completely free to sign a contract with another NFL club during the season in order to be on the second club's Active/Inactive [i.e., 53 man] list." In addition, a player on a practice squad may negotiate a deal with any other team in the NFL, so long as they are signed to the team's 53-man roster. Again, we turn to the CBA: "If another club signs a Practice Squad player to its 53 man roster it does not have to provide any sort of compensation to the player's former club but it generally must keep the player on the 53 man roster for at least 3 weeks, thereby mandating that he earns in 2007 the minimum first year salary for said 3 week period ($285,000 prorated weekly)."
In recent weeks, the Cowboys have twice poached players from other teams practice squads. Let's take a closer looksee, shall we?:
Sterling Moore spent parts of the last two seasons with the Patriots. He started three games as an undrafted rookie in 2011, making a key breakup in the final seconds of the AFC Championship, on a seeming Joe Flacco-to-Lee Evans touchdown. In late October, with a glut at corner spurred in part by the acquistiion of Aqib Talib, New England waived and then quickly re-signed Moore to their practice squad two days later. On November 30, Moore was signed by the Cowboys, who added a year to his contract, signing him through 2013.
The fascinating detail here is the extra year. Although players can reject offers from other teams to join their 53-man rosters, it's very uncommon for them to do so, as the money and prestige aren't at all comparable. However, we have seen many situations wherein a team will promote one of their own practice squadders rather than have him poached by another organization. I suspect that Dallas needed to demonstrate a high level of interest in and commitment to Moore to get him away from the Patriots, who were almost certainly making counter-offers, promising to re-instate him to the 53, etc.
Darrion Weems, who Dallas added on December 5th, had bounced around the NFL a bit. He initially signed with the Vikings as a UDFA after the 2012 draft, was released during the preseason, and immediately snapped up by New England before his release during the Pats' final cuts in late August. He was added to the Indianapolis Colts practice squad Sept. 3, released by the Colts on Sept. 18 and signed to Denver’s practice squad Oct. 2. Clearly, he's had some opportunities with the league's more successful franchises; now he'll have an opportunity to stick in Dallas.
There are other benefits to this approach. Think about it: where else can one find young, NFL-caliber players who, each week, are receiving top-flight NFL coaching, access to sophisticated gameplans, and who are honing their games against the likes of Tom Brady and Von Miller? There's only one place--opponents' practice squads. And, to top it off, these guys come cheap.
And the benefits continue to accrue. In the offseason, the new guys will be joined by all the players on IR on the newly expanded offseason roster. They will continue to work with the coaches, benefit from the offseason program, and participate in minicamps, OTAs and, ideally, training camp. In other words, for a very low commitment, the Cowboys get more time with quality guys before having to make a truly impactful roster decision about them. Dallas' slew of recent injuries have necessitated that the roster be fluid, and the Cowboys front office has taken advantage of this, securing some potential down-the-road players for what is, by NFL standards, a pittance.
As Lande notes, this is what the best ("well-run") organizations do. Just one more reason I think the Cowboys are on the right track.