What has the team gotten out of their priority free agent signings?
The Dallas Cowboys have had some well-known undrafted free agents over the years. From the exhilarating career of Tony Romo to recently crowned Hall of Famer Drew Pearson, the team has had its share of underdog stories. But have things started to taper off as of late?
Today, we’re going to go through the last 10 seasons and revisit what the Cowboys have gotten from some of their most-known priority free agent signings.
Cole Beasley – 103 games
The team had high hopes for fifth-round pick Danny Coale to help bolster the wide receiver position group back in 2012, but it was the UDFA Beasley that ended up being the guy. After a brief departure where he questioned whether or not football was for him, he returned to have a nice seven-year career with the Cowboys before signing with the Bills in free agency in 2019.
Ron Leary – 48 games
A degenerative left knee caused the Memphis tackle to go undrafted. After spending most of his rookie season on the practice squad, Leary emerged as the team’s new starting left guard. He played at that spot most of his time in Dallas, but a groin injury in 2015 opened the door for rookie La’el Collins to slide into the starting role. Leary was back at left guard the following year and played well enough to earn a nice new contract from the Denver Broncos.
Lance Dunbar – 54 games, no starts
Dunbar was an exciting change-of-pace back the Cowboys loved to use, especially as a pass-catcher as he finished his career with more receiving yards than rushing yards. Injuries hindered his career throughout his time in Dallas and he only played in four more games after leaving for the Rams in 2017.
Jeff Heath – 106 games
Heath was a player you either loved or hated as many fans showed support for the undrafted safety over his seven-year career in Dallas, while others were quick to point out the negative plays he made. Heath left the Cowboys in 2020 when he got a new deal with the Raiders, and then after being released last year found a temporary home with the Saints. He is temporarily out of work, but he will long be remembered for some clutch plays and the emergency kicking duties in 2017.
— Adam Collins (@AdamCollinsBNB) August 2, 2018
Keith Smith – 47 games
Smith spent the first two years of his career being s special teams guy who was repeatedly waived and then re-signed to the practice squad as the team continuously jostled their roster. During his third year in the league, he was converted to fullback where he found a regular home. He eventually left in free agency, but to this day, he hasn’t missed a single game over the last six seasons and is still playing with the Atlanta Falcons.
La’el Collins – 74 games
The Cowboys were gifted La’el Collins back in 2015 when a police investigation caused him to go undrafted. He went on to spend seven years with Dallas (played in six because he missed all of 2020) spending his last four at right tackle. Money and the emergence of Terence Steele made him expendable this offseason as he was released before signing with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Lucky Whitehead – 30 games
Hoping to be the answer to the departed Dwayne Harris, Whitehead spent two seasons with the Cowboys as their punt/kickoff return man. Things got weird in 2017 when he posted that his dog, Blitz, had been taken and being held for ransom (Blitz turned out okay and was safely returned), and it got even weirder when it was believed that he was involved in a petty theft at a convenience store. The Cowboys released him, only for it to be revealed the following day that it was a case of mistaken identity. Whitehead would never play another down in the NFL as he signed with the Jets before getting hurt and then joined the Canadian Football league a few years later.
The Cowboys had an epic draft in 2016 led by the big names of Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, but their UDFA class left something to be desired. Nobody from that group would log a single snap for the Cowboys that season.
Cooper Rush – 10 games
After an impressive preseason where he finished 38/51 for 398 yards passing with six touchdowns and no interceptions, Rush jumped ahead of veteran free agent Luke McCown for the no. 3 quarterback spot. He eventually passed Kellen Moore later in the season as the team released Moore and signed him to the practice squad. He held down the backup spot for three years before the Cowboys released him to make room for Andy Dalton in 2020; however, an injury to Prescott prompted the coaching staff to bring him right back. After leading the team to a come-from-behind win in his one and only start last year, he remains the Cowboys’ backup quarterback.
Blake Jarwin – 42 games
The presence of Jason Witten combined with his liability as a blocker limited Jarwin’s opportunities early, but that didn’t stop him from flashing some nice pass-catching moments, including a three-touchdown performance in the season finale of 2018. Despite a small sampling, the team liked him enough to sign him to a four-year extension in 2020. Unfortunately, he’s struggled to stay healthy only playing in nine games over the past two seasons. The Cowboys released him this past March.
Charvarius Ward – 56 games, all with the Chiefs
Ward didn’t play a single regular-season down with the Cowboys because he was traded to the Chiefs prior to the start of the new season in 2018. The Cowboys appeared to have a surplus of bodies at the cornerback position pushing Ward down the depth chart. The team used that excess to improve their depth along the offensive line by acquiring guard Parker Ehinger (who never played a down for the Cowboys). Ward went on to have four solid years with the Chiefs and just signed a three-year, $40.5 million deal with the San Francisco 49ers.
Luke Gifford – 30 games
A contributor on special teams, Gifford battled injuries early in his career. He is coming off his healthiest season yet, playing in 16 games last year. He even saw 32 defensive snaps after only getting one in the previous two seasons. To this point, Gifford remains a special teamer, which isn’t a bad thing if he continues to block punts.
Brandon Knight – 21 games
Knight was thrown into action right away due to health issues along the offensive line. He even started nine games for the Cowboys in 2020. Improved depth prevented him from making the team last year, but the team did sign him to the practice squad before the Baltimore Ravens attempted to claim him. However, Knight opted to not join the team and instead is focusing on his mental health.
Terence Steele – 32 games
The team’s most successful UDFA in recent history, Steele has been a reliable fixture at tackle over the past couple of seasons. Thanks to a hip injury that kept La’el Collins out the entire 2020 season followed by a five-game suspension last year, Steele kept getting opportunities. And he made them count as he’s now become the team’s new starting right tackle after they released Collins this offseason.
Sean McKeon – 23 games
A blocking specialist at Michigan, McKeon seemed like a perfect fit for what the Cowboys look for in a tight end. Despite having little to no résumé as a pass-catcher, he showed promise in the same fashion as Stanford’s Dalton Schultz did a few years ago. McKeon dealt with an ankle injury last year that kept him out for half the season, but he should be right in the mix of the tight end rotation this upcoming season.
The Cowboys didn’t have any meaningful UDFA contributors last year, but here are a few small ones…
JaQuan Hardy – 3 games
We got to see some behind-the-scenes of Hardy courtesy of HBO’s Hard Knocks last year. He initially didn’t make the team and was signed to the practice squad, but got to see a small amount of playing time as he was active in three games late in the year. He had four carries on the season, but one of them went for a touchdown in the 51-26 finale against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Nick Ralston – 4 games
Like Hardy, Ralston didn’t survive final cutdowns and was signed to the practice squad. He was called up early where he played an average of 15 snaps a game on special teams as well as one lone rep on offense. Ralston never saw the field again after the bye week last year and will once again try to earn his way on the roster.
Tyler Coyle – 2 games
Despite an impressive 40-time, Coyle went undrafted and was signed by the Cowboys. He didn’t make the final cut either and was signed to the practice squad. Coyle saw a smidge of action late in the season that mostly consisted of special teams play but did sneak in 16 defensive reps in the Philly finale.
Which of this year’s UDFA signings do you think has the best chance of contributing to the Cowboys football team?