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Helman: All Of A Sudden, This Roster Looks Deeper Than It Has In Years

FRISCO, Texas – Officially, the Dallas Cowboys have not finalized the list of undrafted free agents they'll sign to the roster as part of their rookie class.

Search around Twitter, or even on our site, and it's easy to find a list of names. But these types of things are nebulous – players change their minds and signings turn into non-signings quickly. So it's smart to say that none of this is set in stone yet.

For the purposes of this story, though, the official list of free agents isn't even necessary.

Why's that, exactly? Well, one look at the Cowboys' 2017 draft class, not to mention their pre-existing roster, has me wondering where exactly these undrafted free agents are going to go.

Maybe that's a naïve statement, given this team's success developing undrafted players. Tony Romo is obviously the standard for what an undrafted player can turn into. But Miles Austin, Barry Church, Cole Beasley, Lance Dunbar, Ron Leary and Jeff Heath are other massive success stories in the last decade.

But again, perhaps my biggest impression after last weekend's draft is that this roster all of a sudden looks as deep as it has in a long time.

Let's start on defense, where the Cowboys focused seven of their nine picks. There will be debate for years to come about whether Taco Charlton was the right guy to take at No. 28, but he helps create a crowded defensive line room.

Charlton isn't going anywhere for the foreseeable future, and the same can be said for Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins, Cedric Thornton and Benson Mayowa – all of whom were valuable draft picks or signed valuable contracts, or both. Decisions will have to be made about David Irving and DeMarcus Lawrence at some point in the future, but they seem like guarantees to be here in 2017.

Don't forget Stephen Paea and Damontre Moore, who signed on in free agency, and throw in Charles Tapper – who Cowboys officials are quite excited about after a redshirt rookie season. That doesn't even include new draft picks Joey Ivie and Jordan Carrell, who will be long shots themselves.

For as maligned as this team's pass rush is, there's not a lot of room to make the math work for a new face.

The same thing can be said for the secondary – which looked depleted at this time last week, but all of a sudden is stocked with new talent.

Start with the known commodities. The Cowboys return Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Brown, Byron Jones and Jeff Heath from last year's secondary. They signed Nolan Carroll and Robert Blanton as veteran contributors before the draft.

Further down the depth chart, Kavon Frazier didn't play much defense during his rookie season, but the Cowboys have high hopes for his development. On top of that, Leon McFadden was solid enough to hang on to his roster spot for the entire second half of last season.

That's eight capable players already. And to that mix the Cowboys added cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis, as well as safety Xavier Woods – all three of whom are expected to challenge for playing time immediately. Throw in a developmental prospect in sixth-round pick Marquez White, and the secondary promises to provide some of the fiercest competition on the roster.

Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones admitted as much on Saturday night, when he acknowledged the front office might have a hard time convincing free agent defensive backs to come to Dallas.

"One of the troubles you have is, the way we drafted – and they're not proven – and then you take what we already have on this team," he said. "It gets harder and harder to recruit in free agency."

What positions doesn't that apply to, exactly? Jones also noted the difficulty the Cowboys have recruiting offensive linemen – and why wouldn't they? The starting five is stocked with All-Pros, and the backups are all seasoned veterans like Jonathan Cooper, Joe Looney and Byron Bell.

If the Cowboys carry eight offensive linemen on the final roster, as is their custom, where exactly does a newcomer fit in?

The same can be said for wide receiver. The Cowboys return all five wide outs from last year's squad, not to mention practice squad favorite Andy Jones. The room was already crowded, and then the front office added two more talents in Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown.

There are incumbent receivers on the roster who might not keep their jobs through training camp. If that's the case, how much hope can be had for an undrafted free agent?

There are a few weak spots to consider. The Cowboys don't have a third quarterback, so it's a given that they'll bring a couple to training camp. Assuming one of them shows anything worthwhile, he can potentially earn a roster spot – or at least a place on the practice squad.

Tight end comes to mind, too. Jason Witten is a given, and Geoff Swaim looks like a good bet after he recovers from his foot injury. It will be interesting to track the progress of James Hanna's recovery this spring, and Rico Gathers is the great unknown – but again, the Cowboys' confidence in him seems sky-high.

You can convince me that an undrafted running back could make this team, but it won't be easy. Ezekiel Elliott is obviously top dog, and this coaching staff seems to love the trio of Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris and Keith Smith – even if they don't have long-term contracts here. Rod Smith is also still kicking around, for that matter.

Cap things off at linebacker, and it's the same story. Maybe it's possible that an undrafted guy makes a place for himself on special teams, but he'll have some stiff competition. The trio of Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson is going nowhere. Kyle Wilber is a jack of all trades, a core special teamer and a valued member of the locker room. Despite being a seventh-round draft pick, Mark Nzeocha has shown enough promise to hang around for two full seasons.

If Jaylon Smith recovers as well as Cowboys officials seem to think he can, that gives this team six viable linebackers to fill out the group. Again, anything is possible, but the numbers don't add up.

Specialists – let's not even go there. I'd be stunned if Dan Bailey, Chris Jones and L.P. Ladouceur aren't on this team in September.

That doesn't combine to create a ton of intrigue heading into training camp. Yes, there will be some interesting position battles, but I'm not sure how many genuine surprises we'll see when it comes time to cut this roster down.

That's a good thing. Firstly, it means the Cowboys have – for the most part – done a good job drafting in recent years. It also means they've managed to hold on to the guys they've identified as key components of their roster.

It's entirely possible an unknown player could break out and be the next undrafted success story this summer. But as it stands right now, that challenge looks as steep as it has in quite some time. 


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