Everybody expects success from the draftees in the first few rounds of the NFL draft. That's a given. But later in the draft? If a seventh-round pick shows up and provides a body for the "better" players to beat up on and makes a few contributions on special teams, then the team has gotten a solid return on an investment. Anything more is seen as an unexpected windfall. Just like some first-round, can't-miss types turn into busts, some final-round selections turn out to be Pro Bowl caliber athletes. I'm sure things like this leave scouts scratching their heads and asking themselves how they missed seeing it the first time around.
In an effort to see if the Dallas Cowboys do have a thing for finding value in the seventh round, we are going to look back over the years and see just how many impact making players came out of that slot in the league's annual offseason meat market. During the course of research, it soon became clear to me that the seventh-round success stories from around the league tend to be either lineman or wide receivers due to the fact that teams carry so many players at these positions that they can afford to keep a guy around a little bit longer to allow him to refine his skills. Some household names from the seventh round include pass catchers Marques Colston, T J Houshmandzadeh, and Donald Driver. Among the big uglies, Eric Martin, Tom Nalen, and Adam Timmerman stand out. To steal a line, "There's gold in them there hills" if you look in the right places.
The first time that Dallas found gold, or perhaps I should say struck oil, was in 1964 when they used a seventh-round selection on a track guy who played a little bit of football as well. "Bullet" Bob Hayes changed the way defensive secondaries played defense. A league that favored man-to-man defensive coverage had nobody the could keep up with the former Olympic sprinter. The only hope was to resort to zone defenses and pass off the responsibility for stopping him as Hayes made his way down field. Even this move was only moderately successful. Hayes did a lot of damage during his first two seasons before the game adapted to his influence. Even with that, the speedster continued to be a threat against the "new" schemes. Bob Hayes played his way to three Pro Bowls, was twice a first team All Pro, and eventually he became the second former Olympic gold medalist to be inducted in to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
History has a way of repeating itself, and in 1967 the Cowboys again scored a major seventh-round success, That year the Cowboys secured the services of Rayfield Wright. Originally a tight end, Wright became the anchor of the Dallas offensive front for 13 seasons. Playing right tackle (at that time considered to be the most important OL slot) Wright earned first or second team All-Pro honors every season from 1971 until 1976. The highest praises for his abilities came from the man Wright was charged with protecting, Roger Staubach.
"He was absolutely the best. Rayfield was a big, strong guy that was able to transfer his size and strength from tight end to tackle. He also had such quick feet that he was able to deal with some of the faster defensive ends and even the linebacker blitzes. If he got beat, I don't remember it." - Roger Staubach
After a pair of Hall of Fame success stories the Cowboys entered a drought in the seventh round that lasted until 1975. In that year the team selected linebacker Mike Hegman. You may remember Mike for his play in Super Bowl XIII. Hegman took the football away from Terry Bradshaw and scampered 32 yards for a touchdown. Mike was not the marquee player that Hayes and Wright were, but he gave Dallas 12 solid seasons of effort and started well over 100 games for Tom Landry's defense. He proved to be an outstanding return on investment for the team.
The year 1981 saw the Cowboys use one of their two seventh-round picks to select Ron Fellows, a wide receiver out of the University of Missouri (some sources incorrectly reference the picks as a sixth-round selection). The team promptly moved him to cornerback where he became a part of a secondary known as Thurman's Theives. After a slow transition, Ron became a serious threat to intercept any pass that came his way. In a four season span, he picked off 17 passes including a pair that he returned for scores. Although his stay in Dallas was a short one, Fellows left his mark when he had the chance.
Leon Lett also joined the team via a seventh-round selection. In 1991 the Cowboys selected him out of Emporia State. The Big Cat made a huge impact as a defensive tackle during the team's dynasty seasons of the early- to mid-1990's. Often double-teamed in the middle, Leon still managed to dominate the line of scrimmage. His efforts resulted in two trips to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl and three Super Bowl rings. Still, you cannot mention Lett and not remember the two most noticeable plays of his career. Leon didn't make many mistakes in his career, but when he did it seemed that the whole world was watching. In Super Bowl XXVII Leon was celebrating a "touchdown" fumble recovery before he found the endzone when Don Beebe knocked the ball out of his hand causing a touchback. In the following season, in the Thanksgiving Day game, Leon attempted to recover a blocked field goal that, if he had left it alone, would have ended the game. Instead Lett slipped as he tried to pick up the ball and Miami recovered in time to kick a game-winning field goal.
Nevada-Reno product Brock Marion was the Cowboys seventh-round selection in 1993. Like all late round selections he got his start as a special teams player, but by 1995 he was the starting free safety in Dallas. He played a major role in the final two Super Bowl wins of the 90's and was an excellent player in the secondary. It was the coming of the salary cap era that moved Marion into the "can't afford to keep" category. Brock Marion finished his career, and had the bulk of his success, as a member of other teams.
The most recent big success story among Dallas seventh-round selections, Jay Ratliff, joined the team in 2005. Rat was undersized for his role as a defensive tackle, but that only mattered if the size of his heart was not factored in to the equation. Following a move into the starter's role as nose tackle in 2007, Ratliff was rewarded with a high-dollar contract by Jerry Jones. With the way he was able to dominate the inside of the defense, there were few if any that would question that it was money well spent. The former Auburn Tiger was delivering on his end of the deal. Four Pro Bowls and twice being named an All-Pro earned Rat an even richer deal from the team. That was where things went south. The undersized interior defensive lineman's body was taking a pounding as the toll for his success. Soon there were rumors of a disgruntled player and a frustrated staff being at odds with each other. This eventually resulted in one of the most unusual player/team divorces in recent years and then a sudden return to health for the athlete who continued his career with another franchise. This caused many in Cowboys Universe to harbor hard feelings toward Jay (now Jeremiah) Ratliff, but it does not change the fact that he was one of the team's all-time great seventh-round finds.
For the upcoming 2015 NFL Draft the Dallas Cowboys will have two more shots at finding seventh-round gold. They hold the 236th overall selection owned by Baltimore due to the trade that brought Rolando McClain to Dallas and their own pick, number 243. It will be several seasons before we will know what those selections might develop into, but as fans we continually hope for the best. Who knows? One of those guys might play himself into football immortality the way that Hayes and Wright did. More likely those selections will learn that NFL really means Not For Long, at least as far as player careers go. Still it is fun to speculate. That is what gets us through the long months without football.