The Cowboys saw some flashes from several rookie free agents this past weekend at Valley Ranch.
Draft season is winding down and we've now reached the final phase of the process: the endless critiquing of draft picks. The Cowboys undoubtedly made a splash when they traded up for cornerback Morris Claiborne, and the majority of attention is rightfully focused on the former LSU star. All of the Cowboys' selections are getting their fair share of time in the limelight, however, even late-round picks James Hanna and Caleb McSurdy.
But let's not forget the "second draft." The Cowboys signed 21 undrafted players this year, including prospects who could have easily had their name called, such as Oklahoma State offensive tackle Levy Adcock and Memphis guard Ronald Leary. The extent to which Adock, Leary, and the rest of the undrafted bunch can help the 'Boys in 2012 and beyond is unknown, but the odds may be more in their favor than you think.
We all know about the "Big Two" undrafted players in recent Cowboys' history, Tony Romo and Miles Austin. Without Romo, Valley Ranch would be an awfully different place these days. All the former Eastern Illinois signal-caller has done is post the second-highest career passer rating in NFL history. And it isn't like undrafted Pro Bowl quarterbacks are growing on trees. In terms of Pro Football Reference's approximate value, Romo is the top undrafted quarterback since 2000 by a large margin, with Jake Delhomme and Jay Fiedler a distant second and third. Wide receivers are a bit easier to find after the draft, but there are just a handful of them league-wide that Cowboys fans would want ahead of Austin.
While Romo and Austin are the cream of the undrafted free agent crop for the Cowboys of late, other undrafted players have come in and made contributions as well. There are still big hopes for receiver Kevin Ogletree, and kicker Dan Bailey was sensational last season. Center Phil Costa, safety Barry Church, fullback Chris Gronkowski, and cornerback Bryan McCann all made contributions in recent years despite having 32 NFL teams pass on calling their names for seven straight rounds. A couple undrafted gems, receiver Danny Amendola and quarterback Matt Moore, even got away.
It's difficult to grade the Cowboys' success with undrafted players without an understanding of how the NFL as a whole performs at identifying and utilizing undrafted talent, so let's take a look at the numbers. Since 2000, the teams who have seen the largest portion of their approximate value come from undrafted players, in order, are the Chargers, Colts, Eagles, Ravens, Redskins, Packers, and Steelers. Notice anything about those teams? With the exception of Washington, they've all been really, really good over the past decade.
The Cowboys aren't too far down the list, checking in at 10th. Of course, total value isn't an end-all statistic when it comes to grading undrafted players, especially since young guns, such as the Giants' Victor Cruz, simply haven't had time to compile stellar cumulative statistics. Thus, I combined total value with the value each undrafted player generated per season to formulate more accurate rankings. The results? Dallas jumps up to eighth.
If you're wondering, of all undrafted Cowboys since 2000, Romo and Austin are first and second in total approximate value, with Keith Davis, Torrin Tucker, and Phil Costa rounding out the top five. You can see that, outside of Romo and Austin, no other undrafted free agents have made a monumental impact in Big D since 2000. Compare that to the Chargers, who have been absolutely remarkable at acquiring contributions from undrafted players. Tight end Antonio Gates, guard Kris Dielman, linebacker Stephen Cooper, wide receiver Malcom Floyd, and running back Mike Tolbert all signed with San Diego after going undrafted over the last decade.
But how important are undrafted free agents really? It's tough to tell, but there's certainly a correlation between finding undrafted talent and winning football games. The top 12 teams in uncovering undrafted talent since 2000, as per total approximate value, have compiled a winning percentage of .567 over that span, compared to just .445 for the bottom 12 squads. With a sample size of 192 games for each team, the 12.2% gap in winning percentage is pretty substantial.
Further, of the top seven teams in winning percentage since the start of the millennium, every single one is in the top 12 in undrafted free agent success rate. That is, really good teams seem to get really good undrafted free agents, and vice versa. It truly appears undrafted free agents are having a more-than-inconsequential impact on NFL games.
For the record, I think the Cowboys are one of the top teams in the league at recognizing undrafted talent and luring those prospects to Dallas, and certainly higher than the eighth-place ranking the numbers suggest. One reason is a lot of the free agents have made the team and pushed veterans for jobs. We've heard a lot about the potential of players like Danny McCray and Raymond Radway in recent years, and those types of guys create the sort of internal competition that promotes greatness. Competition created isn't reflected in individual statistics, but it's still vital to team success.
The second reason the Cowboys should be considered one of the league's elite teams at discovering undrafted players, of course, is Mr. Tony Romo. In NFL history, Warren Moon and Kurt Warner are the only undrafted passers to log AV/season totals superior to Romo. Simply put, great quarterbacks are rarely left in the cold on draft day, and Romo is an anomaly that has had a larger impact than any undrafted free agent over the last decade.
Ultimately, the ability of an NFL team to acquire contributions from undrafted players may not be a requirement of success, but it is certainly a bonus. Undrafted players are hungry. Even though most don't see the field on Sundays, they can still fuel the competition fire that allows great teams to stay that way. And once in a while, you can hit on a game-changer. A player who completely alters the course of your franchise. A player whose presence provides annual hope for fans. Once in a while, you find a Tony Romo.
Who is this year's Tony Romo?