Cowboys have made a history of finding talent deep in the draft

IRVING -- With the 14th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys have an opportunity to get an immediate impact player.

Of course, that's if they don't trade down in the first round in hopes of getting two or three really good players in the first two rounds in an effort to improve a team that finished 8-8 last season and missed the playoffs the past two years.

But no matter what happens during Thursday's first round or Friday's second and third rounds, the effort to find a possible cornerstone talent will continue with Saturday's final three rounds and even in the days after with the signings of undrafted free agents.

The Cowboys have a history of mining the lower rounds and the ranks of the undrafted and coming up with superstars if not legends, namely Roger Staubach, Bob Hayes, Cliff Harris, Drew Pearson, Rayfield Wright, Mark Tuinei and Nate Newton.

And that doesn't even include Super Bowl MVP Larry Brown.

The Cowboys still adhere to the philosophy of leaving no stone unturned -- considering that many of the team's current stars such as quarterback Tony Romo and receiver Miles Austin were undrafted and unwanted. Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff came to the team as a seventh-round pick.

With a coach such as Jason Garrett, who was undrafted and never promised an NFL career only to find himself playing 12 years, it's probably fitting.

Garrett doesn't deny coveting high picks and standout players, but he also likes players who have had to work to make it in the NFL.

They all bring that "up-from-roaches" approach to work with them every day and it permeates the locker room.

"It's unfair to say you want a team made up like that because there are a lot first-round picks who have those same qualities and traits," Garrett said. "If you have the right kind of guys on your team, you're going to be able to withstand that inevitable adversity that happens.

"We don't consciously go get guys who are free agents, but sometimes you like the path those guys have taken because they've earned it."

Players who do it the right way with the right attitude are who Garrett covet most.

"I think you can make a compelling argument that America is a meritocracy, so if you do things the right way, you're going to succeed in this country," Garrett said. "I think you can make an argument that the best teams do things that way.

"You try not to entitle people. Hopefully they earn their job, they earn their position because of what they do."

Working harder and longer is not unique to undrafted and overlooked players because of their early adversity.

Just ask Romo.

"When stuff comes so easy at such a young age, it's harder to figure out how to get better when the tough times hit and how to take that next step because you're so used to being able to do it when you show up or even if you work, you're just able to emotionally know that you're the best player," said Romo, who has made three Pro Bowls since coming to the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 2003. "The thing that undrafted people, or guys who come from further down, they understood the grind and how you were doubted over and over and over again and yet you still got here."

Many of the players the Cowboys targeted and signed during free agency have those traits.

Cornerback Brandon Carr, who signed a five-year $50.1 million deal, was a fifth-round pick out of Grand Valley State.

Guard Nate Livings -- who signed a five-year deal worth $19 million -- was undrafted out of college.

Guard Mackenzie Bernadeau was a seventh-round pick.

Fullback Lawrence Vickers was a sixth-rounder.

"The only thing he did was show up in Kansas City and started every game that he's played in his career," Garrett said of Carr. "You don't typically expect that from fifth-round picks from small schools.

"We just feel like he's the right kind of guy and we like to bring those kind of guys into our organization."

Garrett said it helps when you have guys on your team who have had to overcome something because that means they will be stronger when they face adversity on the field or during the season.

Romo agrees.

"Even when you become good enough, you don't stop working," Romo said. "That's why these guys keep improving and keep getting better."

The Cowboys have some of that now and will look for more during and after the draft.

Clarence E. Hill Jr.,


Twitter: @clarencehilljr

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