Undrafted free agents have provided some of our favorite success stories in recent memory. From Tony Romo to Cole Beasley to La’el Collins, some of the Cowboys’ top players have come from among their ranks. But first they have to make the team, and in 2020 the undrafted rookie with the best chance at doing that is Linebacker Francis Bernard.
Bernard enters the NFL after two seasons with the Utah Utes. He was named to the first team for All-Pac-12 honors and played in the Senior Bowl in 2019.
Prior to transferring to Utah, Francis spent a few years at BYU. A running back in high school, Bernard transitioned to linebacker after his freshman year. He had to sit out in 2017 after violating BYU’s “honor code” with a DUI arrest.
Despite this tumult in his college career, Bernard did enough that he was given 4th/5th-round grades by Dane Brugler and other analysts heading into the 2020 NFL Draft. While he’s on the smaller side at just 6’1″ and 230 pounds, Francis was a standout at Utah for his recognition and coverage skills.
Francis Bernard is easily one of the top rookie free agents that the Cowboys signed this year. What really gives him the best chance at making the roster, though, is the relative thinness at his position.
Dallas’ linebacker group in 2020 is almost exactly the same as last season. Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, and Sean Lee are your starters and Joe Thomas is back as the primary reserve.
Filling out the top six should be veteran Justin March and 2nd-year prospect Luke Gifford. Dallas re-signed March on a 1-year deal this offseason and Gifford, who missed 10 games last season due to injury, was getting a lot of buzz in camp and preseason prior to going down. He was kept in just a special teams role once he came off injured reserve.
NFL teams generally keep between 6-7 linebackers, so there’s a chance that one more spot is available for the Cowboys 2020 roster. Bernard could very easily be the next man up to claim it.
Being the 7th man isn’t the only road to the roster. There’s no guarantee that Luke Gifford will generate the same hype this season, or that Dallas will have any great loyalty to Justin March. Those 5th and 6th slots on the depth chart are definitely open to competition.
There is one other undrafted linebacker along with Bernard in 2020; Azur Kamara out of Kansas. But they are very different players as Kamara is more of a DE/OLB or “EDGE” and Francis projects more as a traditional 4-3 linebacker playing in the middle or weak-side roles.
Another player that could factor here is 2nd-year DE Jalen Jelks, who some believe could make a move to linebacker. But he would be like Kamara, hoping to compete as a potential strong-side LB and occasional pass rusher.
Bernard has the inside track on backing up the MIKE and WILL positions. I don’t expect Dallas to keep more than six linebackers this season, but all it takes is one injury for a prospect like Francis to suddenly be needed.
Given what we know if Sean Lee’s medical history, not to mention Leighton and Jaylon, planning for an injury isn’t pessimism. It’s just good sense.
This is clearly an easier road than other UDFAs have at their positions. Folks are high on JMU’s Ron’Dell Carter at defensive end, but he’s got drafted players like Dorance Armstrong, Joe Jackson, Bradlee Anae, and perhaps Jelks to beat out for a roster spot.
It’s also tough sledding for undrafted receivers like Aaron Parker and Kendrick Rogers. They have to try and break through over Devin Smith, Cedrick Wilson, Noah Brown, and Ventell Bryant if they want to make the team.
Clearly, Francis has it a little easier at linebacker.
The key for him, like most players vying for the bottom of the roster, will be performing on special teams. Bernard could easily take a job away from an older veteran like Justin March if he impresses John Fassel.
It’s worth noting that Francis is no spring chicken himself. He’s an old rookie at 25, thanks to his missed year at BYU and a two-year mission trip he did with the school. That could work against him if he’s up against players 3-4 years younger for roster spots.
Still, Francis Bernard is in a good position to compete for the Cowboys’ roster in 2020. He is at a relatively thin position compared to most others on the team and he looks like one of the best values among the undrafted rookies.