You’d be hard-pressed to find a team with a more rich history of hitting on undrafted free agent gems than the Dallas Cowboys. Tony Romo, Drew Pearson, Cole Beasley, and Miles Austin are some great examples. Jerry Jones and company have never been shy about doing what it takes to get their targets in undrafted free agency, either; remember when he paid out to land Ronald Leary?
While it’s not quite the same amount of money, the Cowboys seem to be taking a similar approach this year with Ron’Dell Carter, an edge rusher out of FCS school James Madison University. In signing with the Cowboys, Carter is reuniting with his quarterback, Ben DiNucci, who was drafted in the seventh round. Carter is also getting the largest signing bonus of any undrafted free agent for Dallas:
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
So why did Dallas invest so much in him? A casual Google search doesn’t turn up much, as neither NFL.com or The Draft Network have any scouting reports on him. Popular statistics site Sports Reference doesn’t even have any of Carter’s stats from James Madison listed, as they only recorded his two seasons at Rutgers before he transferred.
So who exactly is Ron’Dell Carter? There’s not exactly a plethora of highlights from James Madison football games available, but the Cowboys clearly saw something in him. And a closer evaluation indicates exactly why that was the case.
Carter was once a three-star recruit from Maryland who committed to Rutgers under then-head coach Kyle Flood. After redshirting his freshman year, Carter endured a coaching change when Flood was fired. He saw the field sparingly in just five games as a redshirt freshman, notching two tackles and half a sack, before transferring to James Madison. Carter later told Draft Wire in an interview that:
“Things didn’t work out for me at Rutgers, but I still appreciated my time there. I was able to transfer to James Madison and play football with my brother. That was always a dream of mine.”
While Carter didn’t make a single start in his first year at James Madison, he saw plenty of action and recorded four sacks and eight tackles for loss, in addition to batting down three passes. He became a full-time starter the next year and responded with 7.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss. But Carter took it to a new level in 2019, posting 12 sacks and a whopping 27 tackles for loss. That’s as many sacks as both Bradlee Anae and Zack Baun recorded in the same year.
Listed at 6’3” and 269 pounds on the James Madison football page, Carter brings good size and length to the role of an edge rusher, and that filled-out frame is part of what helped him dominate at the FCS level. Dane Brugler of The Athletic graded Carter as the 31st best edge rusher in the draft class, and suggested he was a potential seventh-round pick or a priority free agent, saying the following:
“Carter strikes with forceful hands to free himself, locking out and using his lateral quickness to slingshot his momentum to the pocket. He rushes with a plan, but also shows the ability to alter his sequence mid-play.
Overall, Carter won’t amaze evaluators with his athleticism, but he plays stout vs. the run and is skilled at using his hands to snatch and dispose of blockers, giving him a chance to stick on an NFL roster.”
In short, Carter has some good traits and his year-after-year improvement hints at an upward trajectory. But one more thing that likely made him so appealing to the Cowboys is his familiarity in a multiple, varied defensive scheme. In the aforementioned Draft Wire interview, Carter spoke a bit about the James Madison defense:
We were very aggressive on defense this past season. If you watch the film, you’ll notice that we did a lot of blitzing. We were very aggressive up front. That really allowed me to reach the backfield on a consistent basis. I had 27 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. The pressure we were getting as an overall unit helped me attain those numbers. That made my job easy. You can’t beat that kind of pressure. We were constantly putting stress on the backfield. Those quarterbacks and running backs can’t deal with all that pressure.
That allowed us to expose a lot of offenses. We were a four-man front with two linebackers and a bunch of defensive backs. We did a lot of different things. We had a lot of big bodies that were terrific athletes. We had big boys up front but we could really move. That allowed us to remain aggressive.
In that same interview, conducted on April 19, 2020, Carter revealed that he had held virtual meetings with the Cardinals, Seahawks, Jaguars, Patriots, and Titans, all of whom run schemes that require some versatility out of their edge rushers.
Given that Dallas has talked a lot about being able to do a variety of things with their defensive front under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the fact that Carter has experience in a similar kind of system likely made him all the more appealing. And while that doesn’t mean Carter is going to be a starter any time soon - draft pick Anae, as well as others like Aldon Smith, Randy Gregory and Dorance Armstrong Jr., are front-runners for those roles - don’t underestimate Carter’s talent and ability to make this roster.