Discoveries impact Cowboys' success

IRVING, Texas -- Any NFL franchise could have had Tony Romo throwing passes to Miles Austin. All a team had to do was draft the duo.

They've developed from draft-day afterthoughts to stars for a team that leads the NFC East entering December.

Austin and Romo aren't alone at Valley Ranch as under-the-draft-radar success stories. Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff was a seventh-round pick, as were third receiver/punt returner Patrick Crayton and fill-in free safety/special-teams standout Alan Ball. Fullback Deon Anderson and kicker Nick Folk were sixth-rounders. Austin, Romo, punter Mat McBriar, defensive end Stephen Bowen, receiver/special-teams standout Sam Hurd and receiver Kevin Ogletree are all players the Cowboys signed as undrafted free agents who have made impacts this season.

"I don't like to use the word 'sleeper,'" said Tom Ciskowski, the Cowboys' director of college and pro scouting. "If you go after sleepers, you'll have a sleepy team. They're just guys who are under the radar, but there's just something you like. You just find competitive guys who can make plays."

The success of the late-round picks and undrafted players on the roster is a source of great pride for the Cowboys' scouting department.

It's a mistake to assume that the credit for those players should go to Bill Parcells and the men who followed him from Valley Ranch to the Miami Dolphins. The scouts responsible for evaluating and recommending those players remain on owner/general manager Jerry Jones' payroll.

There is obviously a little luck involved when undrafted players become stars, as has happened with Romo and Austin. Romo is the only undrafted quarterback currently starting for the team that originally signed him. Austin, who ranks eighth in the league with 824 receiving yards and is tied for second with eight touchdown catches, is by far the most productive undrafted receiver still with his original team.

However, it would be wrong to say that the Dallas front office is stunned by the progress of Austin and Romo. It considered both to be worth drafting in the late fifth or early sixth round, as was the case with Hurd and Ogletree. It gave Bowen, who carved out a niche as an interior pass-rusher in the nickel-and-dime packages, a seventh-round grade. All were evaluated by several Cowboys scouts and at least one assistant coach.

The Cowboys hit for a high average when it comes to recruiting pitches for their "priority" free agents. It helps that Jones is willing to make competitive financial offers and get on the phone himself to try to close deals.

But the Cowboys' recent track record with undrafted players earning key roles is their best sales point as the final round comes to a close.

"Part of it is just making the player and the agent understand that they've got an opportunity here," college scouting coordinator Chris Hall said. "Our success with rookie free agents making our team and doing well is a plus. Agents who have done their homework know and understand that. They see opportunity for their guys and know they'll get a fair chance to compete here."

Competitiveness is one of the most vital qualities for the late-round/undrafted gems. If they aren't mentally tough, their chances of making the 53-man roster as rookies go from slim to none.

"There's a sense that you really have to earn everything," said Ratliff, whose relentlessness might be his best attribute. "You have to work harder to impress the coaches. There are a lot of times where seventh-rounders or undrafted free agents are just brought in to be camp bodies, so you have to do something to make an impression to make them keep you."

The Cowboys' late-round and undrafted gems weren't satisfied with simply making the roster. They were each determined to carve out a role. And they each remain determined to continue improving, even guys such as Romo and Ratliff who have signed eight-figure contracts.

The underdog mentality remains intact, giving the NFL's most glamorous franchise a healthy blue-collar element.

"They feel like Rocky versus Ivan Drago," Anderson said. "They feel like they've got to give 110 percent every single play. I just think it's the thought of their back against the wall."

Added Crayton, "You've got to keep proving yourself. If you don't, they'll find somebody else."

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at tim.macmahon@espn3.com.