With the expansion of roster limits from 80 to 90 players, NFL teams have greater roster flexibility which allows more players to be developed and evaluated. As in previous seasons, and unless the NFL changes these rules at its next Owner's Meeting, the first roster reduction will happen at 4:00 PM ET on August 26, 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 30, a day after the final preseason games have been played.
The Cowboys currently have 60 players on their roster, a number that includes the four free agents signed in free agency so far, includes the ten players signed to reserve/future contracts, but excludes Philip Tanner, who is a restricted free agent, and also excludes all other free agents. That leaves the Cowboys with 30 open spots on their offseason roster. The Cowboys have 11 picks in the NFL draft, which should bring their roster size close to somewhere around 70 players, given that the Cowboys will likely move around in the draft quite a bit. 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 bona fide NFL stars, but there are many more UDFAs on the roster than just those two. Last year, UDFAs Barry Church (16), Ronald Leary (16), Jeff Heath (9), Cole Beasley (3) and Jermey Parnell (1) all started at least one game, while fellow UDFAs Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, Phil Costa, Lance Dunbar, Jakar Hamilton, Cameron Lawrence, Orie Lemon, Lance Lewis, Danny McCray, Sterling Moore, Phillip Tanner and Darrion Weems all saw some playing time.
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 15 UDFAs in the days immediately following the draft. Out of those 15 players, three are still with the Cowboys (Jeff Heath, Jakar Hamilton, Cameron Lawrence) and three more made the roster of another NFL team (Brandon Magee - CLE, Devin Smith - PIT, Tank Reed - NE). That's not a bad percentage. Here's an overview of last year's UDFA class:
|Player||POS||NFL Team 2012||2013 Status|
|Jeff Heath||SS||Cowboys||2014 offseason roster|
|Jakar Hamilton||FS||Cowboys||2014 offseason roster|
|Cameron Lawrence||LB||Cowboys||2014 offseason roster|
|Tank Reed||LB||Cowboys||Patriots 2014 offseason roster|
|Devin Smith||CB||Steelers||Steelers 2014 offseason roster|
|Brandon Magee||LB||Browns||Browns 2014 offseason roster|
|Eric Rogers||WR||Arena Football||CFL|
|Kendial Lawrence||RB||CFL||Italian Football League|
|Deon Lacey||LB||- -||CFL|
|Xavier Brewer||CB||- -||Arena Football|
|Spencer Benton||K||- -||- -|
|Paul Freedman||TE/FB||- -||- -|
|Dustin Harris||CB/KR||- -||- -|
|Greg Herd||WR||- -||- -|
|Dalton Williams||QB||- -||- -|
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 a while back:
"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 the Cowboys don't "come off grade" after the draft. If they have a grade on a prospect before the draft, they stick with the grade after the draft, which means the Cowboys' number one priority after the draft 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.
This year's six picks in the last round of the draft will allow the Cowboys to sweep up just about all the players they have left on the board with draftable grades. And if you're a team looking to upgrade its roster, not having to compete for those talents with other teams is a good place to be in.