Dallas Cowboys owner likes the look of undrafted rookie Ron Leary

IRVING -- With the way Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has talked up Memphis guard Ron Leary, you would think that Leary was among the team's top draft choices.

The truth is Leary went unwanted during last weekend's NFL Draft and signed with the Cowboys as an undrafted college free agent.

Jones, however, is admittedly as excited about Leary's prospects for next season as he is with any of the team's seven draft picks, save for top pick Morris Claiborne, whom the Cowboys got by giving up a second-round pick to move from 14th to sixth in the first round .

Upon seeing Leary perform during the team's rookie minicamp this weekend, an almost embarrassed Jones continued praising his "pet cat."

"Leary didn't disappoint," Jones said. "I liked the way he moved out there. He's not my pet cat, but it sounds like it. But I did like the way he moved."

That 315-pound Leary could move well for a man so big and powerful has never been a question. It's one reason why he was projected as middle-round draft pick who could possibly go as high as the second round shortly after his season ended at Memphis.

But that was before he went to the NFL Scouting Combine in February and was given a full workout of tests on his left knee, a knee that required surgery last year to repair a torn meniscus.

It was discovered that Leary has a degenerative condition in his left knee called osteochondritis dissecans. It could potentially cut his career short and force him to need career-ending surgery.

Commonly known as OCD, the condition results in the bone that supports the cartilage of a joint to soften. This softening is caused by an interruption in the blood flow to that portion of bone. Over time, if left untreated, this can lead to damage to the overlying cartilage of the joint. Loose pieces of bone and cartilage can even break off into joint. Long-term ramifications might even include arthritis.

According to the OCD Study Group of America, it can sometimes happen in association with ligament injuries.

Not coincidentally, that's what happened to Leary with his surgery to repair a torn meniscus.

That he recovered well and didn't miss any games at Memphis last year made the scouting combine discovery and sudden drop in his draft stock akin to a blind-side hit.

Although he is healthy enough to play now, the condition has raised doubts about his ability to play long term in the NFL, which is why teams dropped him from their draft board.

"I know personally there's nothing wrong with it," Leary said. "I just have to go out there and prove everybody wrong that I'm healthy. I met with the Cowboys doctors [Thursday]. They showed me the [MRI exam]. Basically, it's not an issue right now. It could be a long-term issue, but right now I'm 100 percent healthy. I saw my doctor at Memphis before I left. He said if my knee was going to give out, it would have given out during last year's season. I played the whole season and missed 10-11 snaps."

A disappointed Leary fielded calls from a number of teams during the draft about their interest in signing him as a free agent, but there was one that trumped all. When Jones called Leary, Leary said he told his agent he wanted to come to Dallas.

"[I was] disappointed because [you] always want to go higher," Leary said. "I got a chance to be a Dallas Cowboy; you can't be disappointed by that. It's the greatest organization in the NFL. It didn't happen the way I wanted it to, but I'm loving it."

And the Cowboys are loving him, and not just Jones.

Offensive line coach Bill Callahan and assistant offensive line coach Wes Phillips went to Memphis to work out Leary before the draft.

"We worked with him pretty good," Callahan said. "He was impressive to watch. He's got a lot of positive attributes to his play."

The Cowboys think he has a chance to compete for a starting spot at guard as a rookie, which will give them some flexibility along the line, allowing them to possibly experiment with free agent guard Mackenzy Bernadeau at center.

Leary said his strong religious faith has helped him get through the disappointments. He added that the situation has made him appreciate this opportunity even more, and he is motivated more than ever to prove all the doubters wrong.

"I'm a real religious guy," Leary said. "I pray all the time. I feel like I won't ever need that surgery. I'm going to have a long career. I play with a chip on my shoulder anyway. Just everybody doubting me and saying I'm not going to make it, I'm out here to prove everybody wrong."

Everybody except Jones, who is already in love with his pet cat.

Clarence E. Hill Jr.


Twitter: @clarencehilljr

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