Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has never been one to let money stand in the way of doing something to help his team. His financial commitment to undrafted free agent offensive lineman Ronald Leary could help change the way teams use their late-round picks if it works out.
Draftniks agreed that Leary was a quality prospect. According to Nick Eatman of CBSSports, Jones said some team scouts had a third-round grade on Leary. The problem for Leary was a degenerative knee condition, the type of ailment that often takes a player completely off of a team's board.
The Cowboys moved Leary down their board for it, or at least it seemed like they did. Jones later said that the team didn't take an offensive lineman in the draft because they felt Leary would be there to be signed after the draft.
How could the Cowboys be so sure that Leary would sign with them and not another team? According to Todd Archer of ESPNDallas, Jones decided to guarantee over half of Leary's salary, $205,000 out of $390,000, if he signed with Dallas.
This is a very shrewd, if risky, move because draft picks are usually scarcer than money for an NFL franchise. The NFL also limits the total signing bonus teams can give their class of rookies, but not guaranteed salary.
The Cowboys clearly had some clarity in their evaluation of Leary's worth as a prospect. As Archer pointed out, the amount guaranteed to Leary is in line with the signing bonus of a fifth-round pick. Of course, the money is "credited" towards Leary's salary if he makes the team, while the bonus is above and beyond salary paid for the draft pick.
A key element of this strategy is a strong belief that a player will fall out of the draft. Injuries, character issues, poor measurables or a low level of competition can all be precursors to a player going undrafted.
Once a team has made that determination, the odds favor a team passing on a prospect that is likely to go undrafted to take a similarly-rated prospect who is sure to be drafted. Very simply, they have a chance to get both prospects if they take the "draftable" player, but they have very little chance of getting both if they take the "red flag" player.
Likewise, the cost/benefit analysis of guaranteeing part of a player's salary to get him into your camp instead of another team favors taking the risk. Undrafted free agents will likely play at the league minimum for most, if not, all of their contract. If they are able to provide even solid depth for most of the duration of the contract, the value they will provide to the team will easily double the amount they pay the player. If they become a starter, the player can provide a multiple of anywhere from five to 20 or more times the amount paid during those years.
With this in mind, the last two rounds of the draft become an exercise in not just choosing the best player, but choosing the best player who is likely to get drafted. Teams that are able to correctly gauge the conventional wisdom that makes a player go undrafted will be rewarded for having the boldness to pass on them, even though they are sure enough about their talent to make the kind of commitment Jones did to Leary.
Likewise, the post-draft signing frenzy could change as more teams earmark money to guarantee large parts of an undrafted player's first-year salary. Just like draft picks' contracts are slotted, agents could ask for guaranteed money that is close to the signing bonus for a player that would have been near where their player would have went without the red flag.
The college football pool of talent is growing. Medical technology is advancing. Coaching and training at the lower levels of college football are getting better. Undrafted talent making good in the NFL is only going to trend upward in the future. A team's ability to maximize their haul from the undrafted free agent crop (and in turn make safer picks in the draft) will become a more important element of their overall approach to the draft.
In the wake of this move, the question isn't "Why did Jerry Jones guarantee so much to an undrafted player?", it's "Why aren't more teams taking these kinds of potentially lucrative risks?"