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 30, 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, September 3, a day after the final preseason games have been played.
The Cowboys currently have 69 players on their roster, a number that includes the free agents signed in free agency so far, includes nine players signed to reserve/future contracts, but excludes all Cowboys free agents. That leaves the Cowboys with 21 open spots on their offseason roster. The Cowboys have nine picks in the NFL draft, which should bring their roster size close to somewhere around 80 players, barring further signings or releases. This leaves 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).
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 Tony Romo and Miles Austin into NFL millionaires, but there are many more UDFAs on the roster in Dallas. Last year, UDFAs Barry Church (15), La'el Collins (11), Tony Romo (4), Ronald Leary (4), Cole Beasley (3), Tyler Patmon (2), Deji Olatoye (2), Kellen Moore (2), Lucky Whitehead, and Jeff Heath (1) all started at least one game, while 10 more UDFAs (Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, Lance Dunbar, L.P. Ladouceur, Danny McCray, David Irving, and others) all saw playing time.
That's quite a list, but it doesn't stop there. Former Cowboys like Danny Amendola and Matt Moore found their fortune with other teams after signing their first NFL contract as an UDFA 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 had 16 rookie UDFAs on their roster by the end of May. Three of them are still with the Cowboys (La'el Collins, Lucky Whitehead, and Jameill Showers) and seven more are currently on the roster of another NFL team. That's a pretty impressive percentage. Here's an overview of last year's UDFA class:
|Player||POS||NFL Team 2015||2016 Status|
|Collins, La'el||OT||Cowboys||On the roster|
|Whitehead, Lucky||WR/KR||Cowboys||On the roster|
|Showers, Jameill||QB||Cowboys||On the roster|
|Farmer, George||WR||Seahawks||Seahawks 2016 offseason roster|
|Goodley, Antwan||WR||Seahawks||Seahawks 2016 offseason roster|
|Harwell, Nick||WR||Titans||Titans 2016 offseason roster|
|McDermott, Shane||OC||Giants||Giants 2016 offseason roster|
|Ross, Joel||CB||Buccaneers||Buccaneers 2016 offseason roster|
|Scott, Tim||FS||Browns||Browns 2016 offseason roster|
|Vinopal, Ray||S||- -||Steelers 2016 offseason Roster|
|Hamilton, Ray||TE||Redskins||- -|
|Days, Synjyn||RB||- -||- -|
|Donnie Baggs*||LB||- -||- -|
|Greenberry, Deontay||WR||- -||- -|
|Reshod Fortenberry*||OT||- -||- -|
|Wilson, Jason||CB||- -||- -|
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. Doesn't mean it works every time, as the Cowboys found out the hard way last year when they lost UDFA Thomas Rawls to Seattle.
"I thought…we thought we had a heck of a chance to get [Thomas Rawls]." Jones continued while attending the NFL’s Scouting Combine this week. "You know, if you want to hindsight yourself to death, should we have used one of those sevens on him? Probably so. And we liked him. And we really thought we could get him."
This year, the Cowboys don't (yet) have any picks in the seventh round, which means they can start the process of calling potential UDFAs early this year. And if the last few years are any indication, they'll find some good ones.