It's been pretty rare that at least one undrafted free agent doesn't make the Cowboys' roster as a rookie. But given the current landscape of every position for Dallas and what we've heard so far from training camp, 2021 is starting to look like a bad year for these unheralded hopefuls.
Last season the Cowboys had RB Rico Dowdle, TE Sean McKeon, and OT Terence Steele all as undrafted rookies on the Week One roster. In 2019 there was G/T Brandon Knight and LB Luke Gifford. 2018 was a close call but DB Tyree Robinson spent the first two games as a gameday inactive before heading to the practice squad.
You get the idea; usually at least one of the guys makes it even if they're truly the 53rd guy. But 2021 may very well fly in the face of convention.
One field-narrowing factor is that several positions for the Cowboys don't even have a UDFA among the current camp participants:
- Offensive Tackle
- Defensive End
- Special Teams
So with those roster spots not even on the table, what about the others?
JaQuan Hardy and Brenden Knox are here trying to push their way onto the bottom of the RB depth chart. We know Zeke and Tony Pollard aren't going anywhere, so it really comes down to one of these rookies finding a way to bump Rico Dowdle out of that third spot.
Dowdle will be hard to bump, though, given his proven value on special teams both in coverage and as a kick returner. Dallas didn't even keep a third RB in 2019 so special teams is probably even more important to making the 53 for these guys than whatever they can do on offense.
I wrote back in May that if any UDFA was going to make this roster it would be Nick Ralston. But Dallas didn't even keep a true FB for most of 2020 and could easily go that same route this year. Ralston only has to beat Sewo Olonilua for the job, which isn't a big ask, but the real issue may not that the job itself may not even be available.
Dallas has four undrafted rookie receivers in camp right now but a pretty stout group already filling out the position. Beyond the Big 3 you have experienced depth in Cedrick Wilson and Noah Brown plus 4th-Round pick Simi Fehoko.
Wilson and Brown also have clear special teams roles which add to their roster value. This doesn't cement their spot but it adds another obstacle for the UDFAs to overcome.
There's still a whole month for Brennan Eagles, Osirus Mitchell, Brandon Smith, or T.J. Vasher to make themselves even more valuable than their veteran competition. But at this point it would be considered an upset.
Nick Eubanks and Artayvious Lynn are both intriguing prospects but are also up against the numbers. Their biggest issue is a UDFA from last season, Sean McKeon, who is already making some noise in camp and pushing to make the team.
Dallas still has Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz as their clear top two. They also added veteran Jeremy Sprinkle to replace Blake Bell as experienced depth and a proficient blocker.
Right now McKeon seems to have that fourth spot well in hand, and that's assuming Dallas actually goes long and keeps that many tight ends. For Eubanks and Lynn, a spot on the practice squad seems the best they can hope for.
Houston's Braylon Jones is in camp but seems like little more than a body at this time. We've already heard of Dallas experimenting with Connor Williams as a backup center and 7th-Round rookie Matt Farniok has position flexibility as well.
This isn't to say that late-round picks like Farniok or S Israel Mukuamu have some great claim to a roster spot. But when it's already challenging to find ways to get those guys on the 53, the case for any undrafted free agents becomes all the more difficult.
Chaos may be a ladder at times but Austin Faoliu from Oregon is still going to have a hard time climbing at DT. The Cowboys have loaded up on options with veterans Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins and drafted rookies Osa Odighizuwa and Quinton Bohanna competing against returning prospects Tysten Hill and Neville Gallimore.
Sure, there are a ton of questions marks at this position and nobody with a firm hold on any specific role. But with so many more experienced and seemingly gifted prospects ahead of him, Faoliu is a heavy underdog.
Much like DT, the linebackers have a lot of questions but also a lot of resources thrown at the position this year. Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are still here and now you have Keanu Neal, Micah Parsons, and Jabril Cox contending.
Previous UDFAs like Luke Gifford and Francis Bernard have fought their way onto the roster in recent years. But they're still here too, making even more competition for current rookie Anthony Hines. He's going to have to really show out on special teams if he wants to get into this mix.
As mentioned before, the numbers at safety are already forcing you to think hard about 6th-Round rookie Israel Mukuamu or veteran depth like Jayron Kearse and Darian Thompson. Throw in the flex factor of some of the cornerbacks or Keanu Neal as potential emergency safeties, it's a hard road for UDFA Tyler Coyle to make this roster.
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Of course, anytime one of these undrafted rookies makes the 53 it's probably a surprise from our original projections. And as we said at the outset, it happens so often that it may be foolish to assume it won't this year.
But clearly, this year's crop of UDFAs don't have it easy. The Cowboys have taken a more quantitative approach to improving some of their positions, signing several free agents and spending multiple draft picks at one spot to give themselves more rolls of the dice.
These extra veteran and drafted options have created great competition for camp but also less opportunity for undrafted free agents. It's far from impossible, but looking less than probable, that a UDFA will make the Cowboys' 53-man roster in 2021.