The Dallas Cowboys have a reputation for mining some pretty good talent from the undrafted free agents they bring into training camp every year. As OCC pointed out in a post at the end of the draft, nine UDFAs started at least one game for the team in 2015, and there were also key role players like Lance Dunbar, David Irving, and all three of the specialists who came into the league as UDFAs. Tony Romo is the gold standard of UDFA finds, but when roughly a quarter of their 53-man roster is from that source, it is obvious how important it is to them. Now we look forward (longingly) to training camp with a new crop of UDFA hopefuls looking to become the next player to beat the odds with Dallas.
Well, that crap needs to stop.
There is an ugly flip side to finding those undrafted gems year after year. It has to do with the fact that far too many of the draft picks turn out to be junk. Outside of the first round, the Cowboys have trouble not only finding players that can become starters, they wind up with many who don’t even make it to the end of their rookie contracts. Look back over the four previous drafts, and you see so many names that have fallen by the wayside: Matt Johnson, Danny Coale, Caleb McSurdy, B.W. Webb, Joseph Randle, DeVonte Holloman, Ben Gardner, Will Smith, Ahmad Dixon, Ken Bishop, Terrance Mitchell, and Laurence Gibson have all left the team. Some were lost to injury (and I still take personal responsibility for putting the goatmouth on Danny Coale, but not the others), but too many simply did not have the talent or, in the case of Randle, had far too many demons to make it on the team. And there are others such as Devin Street who are hardly a lock to make the roster this season. What is particularly dismal is how the team has done in the fifth round and later. From the 2012 through the 2014 drafts, James Hanna (6th round) and Street (5th) are the only two left out of a total of eleven picks in the last three rounds. If the Dallas scouting staff is able to find viable NFL talent among the UDFA ranks, why are they not identifying more of those to take with the late round picks the team has?
Admittedly, every Cole Beasley or Barry Church that makes it past the end of the draft represents a failure by the entire league to identify their value, and all NFL teams find good players left over once all the picks are in, some as or more successfully than the Cowboys. Certainly there are some special circumstances, like the knee issues Ron Leary had or the bizarre crime tragedy that wrongfully enveloped La’el Collins. Still, draft picks are supposed to be the most valuable asset a team has to build its roster. Even considering the decreasing chance of success the deeper into the draft you get, the Cowboys still need to do a much better job than the measly 18% they hit on from ‘12 through ‘14 in the last three rounds.
What Dallas needs is to see that hit rate go up appreciably with the 2015 and 2016 classes. They have Ryan Russel, Mark Nzeocha, and Geoff Swaim from last year. All have an opportunity to contribute this year, but none are locks at this point. And then there is the quartet of sixth-rounders from the latest draft, Anthony Brown, Kavon Frazier, Darius Jackson, and Rico Gathers. You really have to figure Gathers is not going to be on the roster this year. He was a real flyer who almost certainly will need a year on the practice squad to learn the game.
However, Brown, Frazier, and Jackson are players who can make a mark this fall. The first two are vying for depth positions in the secondary, where the Cowboys definitely need quality backups, and Jackson is now one of only three running backs that the team knows will be healthy when camp opens (if they can manage to hold onto their iPhones and things like that). These are the players that need to step up and claim a job rather than the UDFAs.
Obviously, there is a little bit of an overstatement in the entering argument for this article. It is always fun to see a prospect who was passed over in the draft prove himself, and the real name of the game is for the Cowboys to amass the most talented roster they can, no matter what the source. But given how the brain trust has clearly put much more emphasis on drafting than on free agency in acquiring talent, they need to do a much better job past the first round. Since they took Dez Bryant in 2010, every one of their first-round picks have made All Pro or the Pro Bowl except the oft-injured Morris Claiborne and last year’s Byron Jones, who certainly has the potential to make it there. And of course our hopes for Ezekiel Elliiott are sky-high. But outside those Pro Bowlers, there are not a lot of standouts, starters, or even solid backups from the past few drafts. And that is a trend that badly needs to change. UDFAs should more often be practice squad material, anyway. The pay is decent, and it can be a steppingstone to making the team in another year or so, or even earlier as the inevitable attrition of the long NFL season takes its toll.
So while many will be pulling for one UDFA or another like Andy Jones or Rodney Coe to break through, I am going to really be rooting for the late round players from the past couple of drafts to prove themselves. Leaving Gathers out of the equation, having three of the six names make the 53 would be a real improvement over the three prior years. Four or more would be getting into very successful territory. But if the majority of them are beaten out, especially by UDFAs, it will just be a continuation of a string of bad draft evaluations. And that crap definitely needs to come to an end.