Once upon a time this draft season, there were suggestions the Cowboys would look strongly at drafting a linebacker, with Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray being a potential first-round target. Not only did the Cowboys not draft a linebacker at all, but they took Murray’s star-studded teammates CeeDee Lamb and Neville Gallimore instead.
But that didn’t change the fact that the linebacker corps needed some depth. Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are going to be the two primary players, with Sean Lee likely playing a lot as the third linebacker in base formations. But none of those guys are sure bets: Smith played inconsistently last year, while Vander Esch’s season was ended due to a chronic injury, and Lee has never been the poster boy for physical reliability.
And after those three, their is a mixed-bag of depth. Joe Thomas has been one of the NFL’s better backup linebackers, but Chris Covington and Luke Gifford have just 29 career defensive snaps between them and Justin March has been almost exclusively a special teamer his two years in Dallas.
It shouldn’t be any surprise, then, that Dallas signed Utah linebacker Francis Bernard as an undrafted free agent. In 2019, Bernard was part of one of college football’s best defenses, and it was evident by how many Utah defenders were drafted, including new Cowboy edge rusher Bradlee Anae. When discussing the Anae pick, Mike McCarthy said:
“Every year as a coach, you don’t watch a whole lot of college football, but I have watched more Utah defensive tape here in the last three months than I think I ever have in my whole career.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Bernard would’ve jumped out on that tape as well, which no doubt led to the Cowboys snatching him up once the draft was finished. Most draft analyst boards had Bernard as a top 20 linebacker in the draft, and Dane Brugler of The Athletic ranked him as the 14th best in his position group, while Pro Football Focus called him “one of the most NFL-ready linebackers in this class.” And if UDFA signing bonuses are anything to go off of, the Cowboys clearly saw similar value in Bernard:
Bonus amounts for eight of the Cowboys UDFA's:— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) April 27, 2020
DE Ron'Dell Carter - $20,000
RB Jet Anderson - $10,000
LB Francis Bernard - $10,000
WR Aaron Parker - $5,000
DL Garrett Marino - $5,000
WR Kendrick Rogers - $5,000
FB Sewo Olonilua - $5,000
LB Azur Kamara - $5,000
Bernard was an integral part of the Utes defense in 2019, operating as the quarterback of the group by relaying defensive calls to the rest of the players. He finished second on the team in tackles (85), fourth in tackles for loss (7.5), and second on the team in interceptions, ahead of several starters in the secondary.
Bernard has an interesting background, though, which is likely the reason he went undrafted. After committing to BYU as a running back, Bernard transitioned to linebacker in his sophomore season. Then, he decided to redshirt in what would have been his junior year for what was later revealed to have been a violation of the university’s notoriously strict honor code.
Bernard transferred to Utah, where he sat out an additional year before becoming the starter in 2019. The fact that Bernard went two full years without playing football and instantly became a leader for one of the nation’s best defenses says a lot about him. But that significant absence from the game brought up major concerns about him as a prospect.
As far as the tape goes, though, Bernard has the skill set to become a contributor on an NFL team almost immediately. He’s got a high football IQ that allows him to diagnose plays quickly and react, and his production in pass coverage at Utah highlighted his skills covering the shallow middle of the field.
As with most of the other players on the Utes defense, athleticism is a concern, and Bernard lacks elite speed and block-shedding ability that starting-caliber linebackers in the NFL need. Bernard benefited from playing behind some massive defensive tackles at Utah, which limited the traffic he ran into. Luckily, he’s going to a team that just got very big at that position with Dontari Poe.
In his scouting handbook, Brugler gave Bernard a late-fourth/early-fifth-round grade and stated that:
“Overall, Bernard needs to improve his take-on technique to earn a meaningful role in the NFL, but he is an aggressive run defender with promising reps in coverage, projecting as an NFL rookie backup who will eventually compete for starting reps.”
And that’s why the Cowboys gave Bernard the second-highest signing bonus of any of their UDFA signings so far. Like each of the Cowboys’ draft picks, Bernard’s addition brings a high amount of value with it. He offers good depth right now and will likely see some special teams work. The optimistic upside of the pick would be that he develops into a regular contributor in the future, potentially even taking over Lee’s role as the third linebacker in base formations in future years.