The Cowboys currently have 14 undrafted free agents on their roster. Like every year, these guys will play their hearts out, subject their bodies to tremendous physical abuse and go through enormous mental stress every time the roster sizes are reduced, first to 75, and then to the final 53 players.
And like every year, most of them will not make it. Realistically, many UDFAs are battling for a spot on the practice squad, and even that option will be out of reach for many of them.
Have you ever wondered how much they get paid for this? Here's where we break it down.
NFL Contract Structure
A rookie who makes the 53-man roster will get a rookie salary of $450,000 in 2016. But there's a catch. NFL players only get paid during the regular season. Base salaries (Paragraph 5 salaries) in the NFL are paid in 17 installments over the course of the regular season. Not before. If you're an UDFA looking to get rich fast, the NFL may not be the best place for you.
Joining the Cowboys
Once a rookie free agent signs a contract, he usually receives a small bonus. These bonuses are mostly in the $3,000 to $5,000 range, but if a particular free agent is heavily sought after by a number of NFL teams, that bonus may end up higher. WR Andy Jones got the highest signing bonus this year with $15,000. The "Undrafted Rookie Reservation" (the maximum amount of signing bonuses teams are allowed to hand out to UDFAs) totaled $92,021 per team this year. That figure will increase or decrease each year in line with the percentage change of the total Rookie Compensation Pool.
The other option for enticing rookies to join your team is the guaranteed money a team can offer. While the signing bonus each team is allowed to pay their UDFAs is limited, there's no limit to the amount of guaranteed money teams can offer. In 2012, the Cowboys offered OG Ronald Leary $214,000 in guaranteed money, in 2013 LB Brandon Magee was offered $70,000 in guaranteed money to sign in Dallas. The 2014 UDFA class didn't get any guaranteed money, and in 2015 the Cowboys first guaranteed WR George Farmer $55,000 to get him to Dallas and then offered the mother lode of all guarantees to OG La'el Collins when they guaranteed every single dollar of his $1,599,500, three-year contract.
Signing bonuses, as the name implies, are paid out immediately after the contract is signed. After that, the UDFAs have to make do with "per diem expenses".
Offseason Workouts and Minicamps:
All veteran players attending offseason workouts get a per diem of $195 per day as stipulated in the CBA.
NFL CBA, Article 21, Section 3: "Each player shall receive at least the following amounts per day for any workouts or classroom instruction in which he participates pursuant to a Club’s voluntary offseason workout program, provided the player fulfills the Club’s reasonable offseason workout requirements: $195 (2015–16 League Years)."
The rule for rookies is slightly different. Under Article 7, Section 5(d), they are eligible for a per diem of $145/day (minus the team's cost for housing) over the seven-week rookie development program. That money is not related to the offseason workout pay veterans are eligible for if they work out during the team's offseason program.
Once training camp starts, all rookies (drafted and undrafted) get per diem payments at the rate of $1,000 a week, which isn't that bad considering that housing and meals are provided by the Cowboys. Veterans get slightly more at $1,800 a week. These payments end one week before the regular season opener, and base salaries then commence in 17 installments over the course of the regular season.
NFL CBA, Article 23:
Rookie Per Diem: "A first-year player will receive "per diem" payments, commencing with the first day of Preseason Training Camp and ending one week prior to the Club’s first regular season game, at the following weekly rates for the respective League Years: $1,000 (2015–16 League Years)."
Veteran Per Diem: "A veteran player will receive "per diem" payments, commencing with the first day of Preseason Training Camp and ending one week prior to the Club’s first regular season game, at the following weekly rates for the respective League Years: $1,800 (2015–16 League Years)."
Making the roster
If they make the 53-man roster, the UDFAs get the rookie minimum of $450,000 or 1/17th of that as a check every week, as long as they keep their roster spot.
If they get signed to a spot on the eight-man practice squad, they are paid a minimum salary of $6,900 per week, or $117,300 over the full regular season if they keep their spot on the practice squad. If a team makes the playoffs, these payments continue for as long as the team is in the playoffs. To protect their players from other teams, or because they really like the potential of a given player, some teams pay their roster squad players significantly more. In 2015 for example, the Rams paid supplemental draft pick OT Isaiah Battle $25,588 per week, which adds up to last year's $435,000 rookie minimum over 17 weeks, the highest amount ever paid to a practice squad player.
The upside of the practice squad is that if a player is called up to the 53-man regular roster, either by his own team or by another team, he automatically signs a contract with the $450,000 minimum salary. Also, three weeks of that contract are guaranteed (3/17th of $450,000 = $79,411), even if that player is released, waived or traded before the three weeks are up.
It's going to be tough for any of the UDFAs to make the Cowboys' roster - think of it as an all expenses paid boot camp - but if they end up signing a contract with the Cowboys, they'll get paid handsomely. They won't be able to go out and buy a private jet right away, but they'll probably be making more money than most of their college classmates.
All contract situations outlined above come with standard NFL insurance and buyout provisions should a player get injured.
When a player is injured and the team doesn’t want to keep him, he gets an injury settlement. The injury settlement gives him the pay he would have received had he remained with the team for the duration of the recovery process. Teams usually lowball the recovery period, and players have the option of getting a second opinion on the recovery period – then both sides usually meet in the middle. Effectively, the team and the player reach an agreement on a lump sum that reflects how long both sides think the player would have remained sidelined.
So if a player is hurt mid August, and the agreed recovery time is eight weeks, he would be paid as if he was on the roster until Week 4 of the regular season. If a player is hurt in OTAs and his recovery time is six weeks, he’ll get the per diems for the remaining OTAs, but probably nothing more.
The treatment for the injury is covered by NFL medical insurance.
When the team wants to keep a player who's injured, and unless that player has individually negotiated more injury protection or a larger guaranteed salary in his contract, the following terms apply: players receive an amount equal to 50% of their base salary (Paragraph 5 Salary) for the season following the season of injury, up to a maximum payment of $1,150,000. If a player’s contract covers an extra year after that, and the injury prevents him from playing in that year, he will receive an amount equal to 30% of his Paragraph 5 Salary for the second season following the season of injury, up to a maximum payment of $550,000.
Players receive one year of Credited Service towards an NFL pension after being on the active roster (or on injured reserve or the physically unable to perform list) in three regular season NFL games. To qualify for an NFL pension, a player has to accrue three years of Credited Service.
And just to be clear: practice squad doesn’t count.