The NFL announced last year that the offseason roster limits had been expanded from 80 to 90 players. The 90-man limit provides teams with greater roster flexibility and allows more players to be developed and evaluated.
As in previous seasons, the first roster reduction will happen at 4:00 PM ET on August 27, the Tuesday following preseason Week 3, when rosters will have to be trimmed to 75 players. The final roster reduction to 53 players will have to be completed by 9:00 PM ET on Saturday, August 31, a day after the final preseason games have been played.
The Cowboys currently have 67 players on their roster, leaving them with 23 open spots on their offseason roster. They will likely add six to seven players through the draft, which would bring their total roster size close to 75. This would leave them with ample room to bring in college free agents and other possible additions to the team.
There are about 6,000 draft-eligible players per year. Only about 250 of those are actually drafted, and even for some of the drafted players it's by no means certain that they'll make an NFL roster. Other players who think they have a shot at the NFL sit through three days of the draft and don't hear their names called. Some are crushed at not being selected, some didn't expect to be selected in the first place, and all end up in the pool of undrafted free agents (UDFA).
And if you're an UDFA, one of the better teams to sign with are the Dallas Cowboys. Everybody know how the Cowboys developed UDFAs like Romo and Austin into bonafide NFL stars, but there are many more UDFAs on the roster than just those two. Last year, UDFAs Danny McCray, Barry Church, Phil Costa, Alex Albright, Jermey Parnell and Kevin Ogletree all started at least one game, while fellow UDFAs Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, Kevin Kowalski, Orie Lemon and Phillip Tanner also saw NFL playing time. And in Cole Beasley, Lance Dunbar and Ben Bass, three UDFAs from last year's rookie class also took their first NFL snaps.
That's quite a list, but it doesn't stop there. Former Cowboys like Danny Amendola and Matt Moore moved on to fame and fortune with other teams after signing their first NFL contract with the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys have historically taken on board more UDFAs than many other teams, and have been historically more successful than most other franchises in developing these UDFAs.
Last year, the Cowboys signed 21 UDFAs in the days immediately following the draft and signed three more (DE Ben Bass, FB Jamize Olawale and K Delbert Alvarado) after rookie mini-camp. Out of those 24 UDFAs, five are still on the Cowboys roster (Beasley, Dunbar and Bass plus OG Ronald Leary and WR Donavon Kemp), and two more (WR Tim Benford, LS Charley Hughlett) are back in Dallas as part of the 2013 offseason roster. That's a pretty good percentage. 12 other players made the roster of another NFL team last year, and only five players out of that 24-strong UDFA class did not find a new team after the Cowboys cut them, with one, OT Taylor Dever, deciding not to pursue a career in football. Here's an overview of last year's UDFA class:
|Player||POS||NFL Team 2012||2013 Status|
|Cole Beasley||WR||Cowboys||2013 offseason roster|
|Lance Dunbar||RB||Cowboys||2013 offseason roster|
|Ben Bass (IR)
||DE||Cowboys||2013 offseason roster|
|Ronald Leary||OG||Cowboys||2013 offseason roster|
|Donavon Kemp (IR)
||WR||Cowboys||2013 offseason roster|
|Aston Whiteside||LB||Bears||2013 offseason roster|
|Jeff Adams||OT||Dolphins||2013 offseason roster|
|Eddie Whitley||S||Eagles||2013 offseason roster|
|Harland Gunn||OG||Falcons||2013 offseason roster|
|Andrew Szczerba||TE||Falcons||2013 offseason roster|
|Levy Adcock||OT||Giants||2013 offseason roster|
|Lionel Smith||CB||Lions||2013 offseason roster|
|Jamize Olawale||FB||Raiders||2013 offseason roster|
|Adrian Hamilton||LB||Ravens||2013 offseason roster|
|Saalim Hakim||WR||Saints||2013 offseason roster|
|Charley Hughlett||LS||- -||Cowboys 2013 offseason roster|
|Tim Benford||WR||- -||Cowboys 2013 offseason roster|
|George Bryan||TE||Browns||Free agent|
|Isaac Madison||CB||Lions||Free agent|
|Troy Woolfolk||CB||- -||Free agent|
|Delbert Alvarado||K||- -||Free agent|
|Tyrone Novikoff||OT||- -||Free agent|
|Darrell Scott||RB||- -||Free agent|
|Taylor Dever||OT||- -||Out of football|
All in all, that's 19 of 24 college free agents signed by the Cowboys who eventually found employment with an NFL team, even if was "just" the practice squad in many cases. That's a pretty impressive number any way you look at it. Five players out of that list (Beasley, Dunbar, Bass, Olawale, Hamilton) even notched their first NFL snaps on offense or defense last year.
The Cowboys' success with college free agents is more than simple luck. It's a result of being more selective in their talent evaluations, as Stephen Jones explained last year:
"We used to put 250 players on the board, however many get drafted. Now we put about 100, 120 players on our board, and they're just the players we want," pro personnel director Stephen Jones said.
"We don't think about, 'That guy is going to get drafted,' so we put him on our board. If he doesn't fit what we want, even though he may get drafted in the first or second round, we don't put him up there. It keeps us focused not only all the way through the draft, but also through college free agency."
"He may not fit from a scheme standpoint or from a cultural standpoint or a character standpoint, and those guys, we don't want them on our football team. So let's focus on guys that we do like. I think that's the biggest change is the philosophy there -- let's go after Dallas Cowboys."
"And pretty much every time we sign those 15 to 20 [UDFA] guys, we sign them from our draft board. I think that's why we've had some really good success with players who weren't drafted."
Part of the process is also that Chris Hall, the Cowboys' director of college scouting, doesn’t allow scouts to "come off grade". If they have a grade on a prospect before the draft, they have to stick with the grade after the draft, which means that after the draft, the Cowboys' number one priority is to try and sign every prospect still left on their draft board. After all, getting more players with a draftable grade onto your team is bound to improve the quality of your team.
The Cowboys had a fifth-round grade on Tony Romo in 2003, and also had a draftable grade on Miles Austin in 2006. Last year, the Cowboys had a high grade on Memphis guard Ronald Leary, but "gambled" that he'd still be there as a UDFA due to his knee condition.
Imagine if you're the Dallas Cowboys and competing with other teams for a college free agent. Showing numbers like the above that demonstrate the organization's success with UDFAs will certainly give your promises a lot more weight than if you're a team simply looking to fill its roster with camp bodies.