A Couple Of Long Shots To Pull For

FRISCO, Texas – This is off one rookie mini camp.

Two open locker rooms’ worth of interviews.

And usually this is the time of year to offer a guy to cheer for. You know, a player with long odds to make the team, yet one worth betting odds and an interesting story to tell.

So this year, if you will, instead of one, how about two candidates maybe flying under the radar worth keeping an eye on? Two guys who have arrived on campus as undrafted free agents.

One from the Class of 2021 who didn’t play a lick this past season.

The other in the Class of 2022, having taken the junior college route to eventually land at an HBCU school.

Both with unique stories but each appearing to be one of those guys who just look the part. Sort of like past guys who squeezed their way onto a roster through the back door. Such as, off the top of my head, Jeff Heath or Cole Beasley or Dan Bailey or Lance Dunbar or Barry Church. Or heck, we can go way back to 1981 when Everson Walls and Michael Downs, two undrafted guys from the Dallas area, ended up starting as rookies in the same defensive backfield.

So meets TJ Vasher, wide receiver, Texas Tech. He’s the one arriving last year, but essentially spent the 2021 season on non-football injury.

Then there is Markquese Bell, safety, Florida A&M, by way of Coffeyville Junior College. He’s the rookie undrafted free agent the Cowboys had a draftable grade on, only for Bell to fall through all seven rounds of the draft, becoming a “priority” free agent to sign.

Best thing about both? They look the part, both with not only unique stories but also traits giving them a chance. Vasher, the receiver, is 6-6, 210, with an 84-inch wingspan, out of Wichita Falls Rider High School, who runs a reported 4.5 in the 40. Bell, the safety, is listed at 6-2, 212, but with the body type of a linebacker who, good gosh, ran a 4.41 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine.

And here is what gives guys like this hope.

“I explained to the players last night,” Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said the first day of last week’s rookie minicamp, “your identity will now be shaped by what you do.”

For example, Quinn went on to use Cowboys assistant defensive line coach Leon Lett, a guy who arrived with the Cowboys in the seventh round of the 1991 draft after two years at Hinds (Miss.) Community College and then two more at Emporia State to end up playing 10 years with the Cowboys.

Then he mentioned defensive backs coach Al Harris, a sixth-round pick of Tampa Bay in 1997 after two years at Trinity Valley Community College and two years at Texas A&M-Kingsville, yet going on to a 15-year NFL career with two Pro Bowl selections.

“If they had to redraft those guys a few years later, they probably wouldn’t have been drafted in the sixth round and seventh round,” Quinn said. “So, what you do from here is really going to shape your identity.”

Take Vasher. He suffered a knee injury in his senior year at Tech, tearing the meniscus, and he remembers exactly when, Nov. 28, 2020, against Oklahoma State. Eventually leading to surgery, the rehab was extensive, causing him to fall through the draft.

But the Cowboys valued his 6-6 dimension, knowing a guy that tall usually is always open if throwing the ball up high. Vasher finished his Tech career with 21 receiving touchdowns and in high school was a two-time Class 5A All-State player. They also saw that during his junior year, 26 of his 42 receptions went for either first downs or touchdowns (six).

So, they took an inexpensive, undrafted free agent chance on him, realizing he likely would need to continue rehabbing his knee, betting on the come line. Thus, Vasher began training camp last year on active non-football injury and with a crowded field at wide receiver the Cowboys decided to retain his rights by placing him on reserve/NFI. That meant they would extend his knee rehab into December, and after a bout with COVID-19, was restored to NFI and then placed on Return To Practice to get in three weeks of scout team work at the end of the season.

But here is how Vasher impressed me: He worked hard on his rehab. If a quarterback needed someone to throw to, he’d run routes. And during the early game-day warmups for home games, he was the guy running route after route for Dak Prescott during his early throwing.

Meaning, last Thursday during rookie minicamp was his first sort of team practice since suffering the knee injury against Oklahoma State.

“This was very satisfying to me,” Vasher said.

Now on to Bell, who we found out on our Mick Shots podcast is the nephew of Walls’ Grambling State roommate, Mike Haynes. Also, Bell’s FAMU head coach Willie Simmons, who called Bell “a freakish athlete,” had crossed paths at The Citadel with now Cowboys secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr., an assistant there at the time.

“I’m a hitter,” Bell said during his minicamp interview.

Well, the Cowboys must think he’s a sleeper. Bell was given a $15,000 signing bonus, normally the upper range for an undrafted free agent. And they basically guaranteed him a season’s worth of practice squad pay if he doesn’t make the 53-man roster. That’s how much he impressed the Cowboys.

But here is what intrigued me about him, and obviously the Cowboys, too. In high school Bell played quarterback, running back, defensive back, kicked, punted and returned kicks. Was a high school state high jump champ. Says as a straight-on kicker he made one from 45 yards.

Bell, as Vasher, took a circuitous route to The Star. He was recruited to the University of Maryland, leaving high school early to enroll during the 2017 spring semester. Unfortunately, was indefinitely suspended for what was officially termed an undisclosed violation of the student-athlete code of conduct. Left the program in November of the 2017 season and had a 2018 football season restart at Coffeyville Community College before playing two years – a third in 2020 interrupted by COVID – at Florida A&M. By the way, that’s where Nate Newton played his college ball.

Bell became a two-time All-American and was one of just four HBCU players invited to the combine.

“One thing they can’t say is I’m not giving my best,” Bell said.

But Quinn had a way of dropping his name. Said the first time he saw Markquese in person, he thought the same thing I did when talking about looking at players and trying to envision how that guy would fit into his defensive scheme.

“Like when I looked at Marquese, to say, what would he look like at linebacker? What would he look like down in the box?” Quinn said. “We went down to visit with him. He came in for a visit and I had him meet as a linebacker for that day. I think he has some of those traits because I saw the hitting and the contact.”

Quinn is thinking Jayron Kearse, knowing the Cowboys are short on those hybrid safety/linebacker types he so likes, but he also values ​​Bell’s true safety skills. That Cowboys’ position is laced with Donovan Wilson in the final year of his contract, veteran Malik Hooker playing on a two-year deal, though could be shortened to one, depending on his 2022 performance for just $850,000 of dead money, and then last year’s sixth-round pick Israel Mukuamu and last year’s undrafted free agent Tyler Coyle, along with a few more undrafted free agents.

Just as Vasher, where the Cowboys are restocking the wide receiver position after trading away Amari Cooper, losing Cedrick Wilson in free agency and knowing Michael Gallup recovering from ACL surgery will miss at least the first month of the season.

There you have it, a couple of guys to keep an eye on as the Cowboys move into the Organized Team Activity portion of the offseason next week with their first three workouts.

And who knows? Especially knowing this team’s history with long-shot guys at those two positions. Remember, 52 years ago some kid from the hills of Arkansas, having played quarterback at Des Arc High School and then defensive back at little known Ouachita Baptist in Arkadelphia, Ark., signed an undrafted free agent contract in 1970 with the Cowboys.

His bust now sits in Canton, Ohio, in the rotunda of the Pro Football Hall.

Yep, Cliff Harris once was one of those unknown guys, too, battling them long odds.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *