Frisco, Texas — This is a rookie mini-camp.
The interview value of two open locker rooms.
Usually this is the time of year to cheer for a person. You know, a player with a good chance of making the team, but worth betting on odds and an interesting story.
So this year, if you will, instead of one, two candidates might be flying under the radar, and are they worth watching? Two guys who came to campus as undrafted free agents.
A student from the Class of 2021 who did not play last season.
Another Class of 2022, who ended up at HBCU via the post-secondary route.
Both have unique stories, but each seems to be one of those people who only looks at the characters. Kind of like someone who used to squeeze into a roster through the back door. For example, in my mind Jeff Heath or Cole Beasley or Dan Bailey or Lance Dunbar or Barry Church. Or heck, we go back to 1981, when two undrafted players from the Dallas area, Everson Walls and Michael Towns, ended up in the same defensive backcourt as rookie starts.
So meet Texas Tech wide receiver TJ Vasher. He’s the guy who arrived last year, but has largely spent the 2021 season on non-football injuries.
Then there’s Markquese Bell, Safe, Florida A&M, via Coffeyville Junior College. He was a rookie undrafted free agent for the Cowboys, but Bell fell out of all seven rounds to become a signed “priority” free agent.
What’s the best thing about the two? They seem important, with not only unique stories, but also traits that give them a chance. Receiver Vasher, a 6-6, 210-inch, 84-inch wingspan from Cavaliers High School in Wichita Falls, is reported to have a 4.5 in his 40s. Safety Bell is 6-2, 212, but has the size of a linebacker and, gosh, he’s running a 4.41 40 on the NFL Scouting Combine.
This is what gives hope to such people.
“I explained to the guys last night,” Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said on the first day of last week’s rookie minicamp, “that who you are now will be determined by what you do.”
Quinn, for example, went on to use Cowboys assistant defense coach Leon Wright, who came to Hinds (Mississippi) Community College with the Cowboys in the seventh round of the 1991 draft for two years and then at Emporia State University for two years. Ended up playing 10 years with the Cowboys.
He then mentioned defensive backs coach Al Harris, who was drafted in the sixth round by Tampa Bay in 1997 after two years at Trinity Valley Community College and two years at Texas A&M-Kingsville, but was in two Pro Bowls. Continuing 15 years in the NFL career option.
“If they had to re-draft these guys in a few years, they probably wouldn’t have been drafted in the sixth and seventh rounds,” Quinn said. “So, what you do from here really shapes your identity.”
Take Washer, for example. He injured his knee and tore his meniscus during his senior year at Tech, and he vividly remembers the Nov. 28, 2020 game against Oklahoma State. Ultimately leading to surgery, the rehabilitation was extensive, causing him to fall through the draft.
But the Cowboys value his 6-6 size, knowing that a generally tall guy is always open if he throws the ball high. Vasher finished his technical career with 21 receiving touchdowns and was a two-time 5A All-State player in high school. They also saw that in his junior year, 26 of his 42 catches were first touchdowns or touchdowns (six).
So they ran him a cheap, undrafted free agent opportunity, realized he might need to keep repairing his knee, and bet on a pre-emptive move. As a result, Vasher started training camp last year with a non-football injury, and due to the crowded field at wide receivers, the Cowboys decided to preserve his rights by placing him on the reserves/NFI. That means they’ll extend his knee rehab into December, return to the NFI after his battle with COVID-19, and then return to practice at the end of the season for a three-week scouting team.
That means, during his rookie minicamp last Thursday, it was his first team practice since sustaining a knee injury against Oklahoma State.
“It makes me very happy,” Washer said.
Now to Bell, we are in our Mick shot The podcaster is the nephew of Walls’ Grambling State roommate Mike Haynes. In addition, Bell’s FAMU head coach, Willie Simmons, who called Bell a “freak athlete,” met at the Citadel with then-assistant coach Joe Whitt Jr. at the Citadel.
“I’m a hitter,” Bell said in an interview with the minicamp.
Well, the Cowboys must think he’s a sleeper. Bell received a $15,000 signing bonus, usually the cap for undrafted free agents. If he doesn’t make the 53-man roster, they basically guarantee him a season’s salary for the training class. That’s how he impressed the Cowboys.
But that’s what got me interested in him, and of course the Cowboys. In high school, Bell played quarterback, running back, defensive back, kicking, kicking and kicking back. He was a high school state high jump champion. Said as a direct kicker he shot from 45 yards.
Bell, as Vasher, takes a detour to The Star. He was accepted to the University of Maryland and left high school early to enroll in the spring 2017 semester. Unfortunately, he was suspended indefinitely for what was officially called an undisclosed violation of the Student-Athlete Code of Conduct. Leaving the program in November of the 2017 season and restarting the 2018 football season at Coffeyville Community College and then playing two years at Florida A&M — a third of 2020 interrupted by COVID. By the way, that’s where Nate Newton played college ball.
Bell became a two-time All-American and was one of only four HBCU players invited to joint training.
“The one thing they can’t say is that I didn’t do my best,” Bell said.
But Quinn has a way of dropping his name. Said that the first time he met Markquith himself, he was thinking the same way I did when I was talking about watching a player and trying to imagine how that person would fit into his defensive plan.
“Like when I looked at Marquez and said, what’s he going to look like at the back? What’s he going to look like in the box?” Quinn said. “We went to visit him. He came in to visit, and I had him meet that day as a linebacker. I think he had some of those traits because I saw the batting and the contact.”
Quinn is considering Jayron Kearse, who knows the Cowboys lack the hybrid safety/lineback type he likes, but he also values Bell’s true safety skills. The Cowboys’ spot is tied with Donovan Wilson in the final year of his contract, with veteran Malik Hooker signed to a two-year deal that could be shortened to one , depending on how he plays in 2022, with just $850,000 in dead money, and then finally this year’s sixth-round pick Israel Mukuamu and last year’s undrafted free agent Tyler Coyle, plus a few undrafted free agents.
Like Vasher, the Cowboys are filling wide receiver positions after trading for Amari Cooper, losing Cedrick Wilson in free agency and knowing Michael Gallup, who is recovering from ACL surgery, will miss at least the first month of the season.
And just like that, as the Cowboys head into the organized team activities portion of the offseason with their first three tryouts next week, there are a few people to watch.
Who knows? Especially knowing that this team has a history of long-range shooters at both positions. Remember, 52 years ago, a kid from the mountains of Arkansas playing quarterback at Des Arc High School and then defensive back at little-known Ouachita Baptist in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, with the Cowboys in 1970 Signed an undrafted free agent contract.
His bust is now in the Rotunda of the Pro Football Hall in Canton, Ohio.
Yes, Cliff Harris used to be one of those unknowns too, fighting them.