The new contract extension for Terence Steele of the Dallas Cowboys came as a surprise to many. We know the team is trying to lock down key players for the long haul, but names like Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb are the most discussed. But Steele is a key component of the offense, and a wise investment. Yes, he is paid well in the short term, but these deals always look better and better as the inevitable inflation sets in and later contracts across the league get bigger. Still, this is a significant accomplishment for a player who came to the team as an undrafted free agent.
For the most part, the NFL Draft, free agency, and the occasional trades are seen as the important tools for building rosters in the league, But UDFAs are an often underrated part of the process. In 2022, 23% of all players on the initial 53-man rosters across the NFL were undrafted. The Cowboys this year are actually a bit less dependent on UDFAs, with 10 of their current members undrafted, or 19%. But the hit rate is impressive. Steele is just the biggest name. He is joined by Markquese Bell, Juanyeh Thomas, KaVontae Turpin, Peyton Hendershot, Trent Sieg, Rico Dowdle, and this year’s additions Hunter Luepke, T.J. Bass, and Brandon Aubrey. Bell, Thomas, and Dowdle are all cases of players who the team kept around until they were ready, in Dowdle’s case finally getting to the start of the regular season healthy. Sieg and Aubrey are two of the specialists, a place many teams rely on UDFAs. Turpin is a bit of an oddity, because he was technically drafted, but by the New Jersey Generals of the USFL. He also is on the roster largely because of his return duties, but it is hoped he gets more opportunities as a wide receiver than he did in his first year with Dallas.
While some of the UDFAs this year may not play much of a role in the outcome of the season, some of them clearly will.
It is not surprising that so many players with the Cowboys and across the league entered as UDFAs. Since the reduction of the draft to seven rounds, there simply are not enough picks for teams to fill out their rosters. Just as with the draft, scouting here is key, and Will McClay’s staff has done a very good job finding players who did not get picked that can help. Dallas also has the invaluable advantage of the cachet of America’s Team. Signing UDFAs is a freewheeling open market, and there have unquestionably been some who chose the Cowboys over other offers to be in the brightest spotlight in the NFL.
There have been some major stars for Dallas who began as UDFAs, with Tony Romo being the most recent case. Most, of course, play much smaller roles, but you never know when one of them will be forced into a bigger one. Depth is vital in the violent world of professional football. At this point, it is possible one or more of the current UDFAs could be bumped off the 53 man roster if the team signs a veteran, with the offensive line the spot it is easiest to make a case. But as the team showed with the trade for Trey Lance, they are always looking to upgrade. It is a harsh business.
For the UDFAs that do make it to the regular season, though, they are big winners. They will forever have been members of the Dallas Cowboys. And there is another crop waiting for a chance. Dallas’ practice squad contains thirteen UDFAs. Most of those were originally signed by the Cowboys. At least some of them will get a chance to be elevated and make the game day roster, and might stick around a while. One player who almost certainly will is C.J. Goodwin. He started last year on the PS as part of the maneuvering to try and build the best roster possible. and it is certain that he will be signed back to the 53 after the team exhausts his three allowed callups, or when a spot opens up due to injury.
Of course, many other teams do a good job finding talents that are passed over on draft day. This is just a look at how those kinds of players fill an important role for Dallas. Now we are just days away from seeing how they do on the field.
It’s football season.