While all the football world either marvels at or offers criticism for 2020 NFL Draft picks, the Dallas Cowboys find themselves the recipient of the former, having executed a plan that saw them walk away with arguably the best haul of talent -- including the likes of CeeDee Lamb, Trevon Diggs and others who aren't as heralded but are certainly as capable of making an impact in Year 1. Their successful blueprint, laced with a healthy helping of fortuitousness, didn't stop when the lights went out on the draft itself. The club immediately went to work calling a list of coveted undrafted free agents and attempting to convince them Dallas was the place to be, and Ron'Dell Carter was at the top of their list.
The former James Madison star pass rusher will join a list of 15 other UDFAs on their way to the Cowboys, but in a unique fashion, because sources confirm to CBS Sports the organization guaranteed him more money than the other 14 players -- giving a strong hint at their belief in his upside and that he can challenge for a roster spot in 2020. His life-changing phone call following draft weekend wasn't the first time he had spoken with the Cowboys, either, as the team showed interest early and often over the past several months.
"When I was out in Los Angeles [at the NFLPA game], I spoke with them and we had some preliminary talks," Carter said. "... And we spoke two or three times throughout the process between January and [through] the draft. My agent, [Adam Seifer], also spoke with them at the Combine, and him and I had some good talks about it -- how it could potentially be a good look. That's how I actually got the Dallas Cowboys hat that I had. When I was there, they gave it to me.
"It's almost like it was meant to happen."
The COVID-19, NFL pre-draft setback
While Carter was able to land the attention of head coach Mike McCarthy, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula early on, coming from a small school program and not being able to sell himself to NFL teams by way of pro days or in-person meetings and workouts made the process exceedingly difficult. It's possible Carter would've been drafted if not for the heightened difficulty created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think it affected not just me, but a lot of FCS guys from smaller schools," he said. "Unfortunately, we don't get to play on national television every single week. The only time the FCS is on TV is the playoffs. Luckily, JMU got to play in the playoffs, so teams were able to nationally see me, but it was tough.
"I was training for those 6-8 weeks, I come back and I'm ready to get my pro day in and three days before pro day, they say, 'Hey, it's cancelled.' That alone hurt us because teams want to see an FCS guy's body makeup, and to see us in person. We couldn't do meetings. We couldn't do [Official 30] visits. We couldn't do private workouts.
"So for a guy like me, who was at a lower level and guys consider a 'tweener' -- because I'm 6'3" and not a 6'6" defensive end -- teams want to see in person. I think that definitely affected me from that standpoint. But luckily my character and my film allowed me to get a phone call right after the draft."
To be clear, Carter didn't just receive "a phone call" on Saturday evening. He tells CBS Sports he received offers from upwards of 25 different teams and, in the end, it came down to two frontrunners in the Cowboys and their former rivals, the San Francisco 49ers. In the end, the highly-coveted undrafted free agent was awarded the most guaranteed money of any player in Dallas' UDFA haul, which is clear evidence they see a high upside in him.
That, and the fact they had to beat back 24 of the 31 other teams to get their hands on him.
Small school, huge talent
The 6'3", 265-pound pass rusher saw his production mushroom once he transferred from Rutgers to JMU -- delivering four sacks in his first year before adding another 7.5 in Year 2 and logging a career-high 12 sacks in 2019. His ability to disrupt in the offensive backfield wasn't relegated to just sacks, either, having seen his TFL (tackle for loss) tally balloon from eight to 13 and ultimately to 27, in his first, second, and final year, respectively.
As he explains it, the move to JMU was the best decision he's ever made, and it helped him re-sculpt his body in a manner that best suits him -- versus the system itself.
"When I was at Rutgers, I was [weighing in] at 282 -- the highest I've gotten," Carter said of his decision to leave Rutgers. "I just couldn't play the way I was used to playing. So I went down to JMU and I got my weight back down to where I'm supposed to be playing at -- 265 pounds -- and that's when I was able to just go off. I was in a 4-2-5/4-3 defense, playing defensive end and sometimes I'd go inside and rush the passer at 3-tech, drop back into coverage at 3-tech, etc.
"I was just able to play my style of play. From that point, each year I got better. ...The good thing is each year I get better in some way. I might focus on something a little bit different this year to make it better than I was last year, and [in 2019] I just put it all together. I'm sure once I get to the NFL under some great coaches like the ones we have [in Dallas], I just can't wait to learn and get better every year. I'm just grateful I got this opportunity."
It's a new day in Dallas on a lot of levels, but most certainly on the defensive front. While the team will remain in a 4-3 base, they'll also merge to a hybrid system that deploys a 3-4 on the fly before reverting back to a 4-3, which makes it exceedingly difficult for opposing offensive coordinators to scheme for. That means Carter could be tasked with moving around and being highly productive in the process, but he's no stranger to it.
As a matter of fact, he's looking forward to it.
The 'dog' from B-More has plenty of bite
"When I was at the NFLPA game, I did all three," he said. "I stood up. I rushed off the edge. I went in the four-down with my hand in the dirt from a 5-tech and from a 9-tech, and I also went at 3-tech. So the good thing about me is I do all three of those things, and I do them well.
"And that's what's going to help me -- my versatility. I'm not a guy who's just limited to the edge, or inside, or standing up. I've done all three of those things. Once I get some NFL coaching, I'm just going to put all of that together. ...and I'm going to be coachable and try to learn everything I can."
A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Carter knows something about the blue-collar work ethic needed to succeed at the NFL level. He's not naive to the fact he's one of four EDGE prospects heading to Dallas and even though he has the edge in the race by virtue of his contract, he'll need to wow the team from Day 1 if he's to pull away from the pack. So when it comes to what sets him apart from the rest, he describes his upbringing and how those challenges helped him "grind" his way to where he is today, noting how "nothing is given to anyone" in Baltimore, but also because he won't be outworked.
The Cowboys are looking for dogs on defense, and Carter wants them to know he's a whole kennel.
"A coach can't teach me how to have that dog in me," he said. "A lot of players claim they have it, but I got it. The Cowboys saw it [ahead of the draft] and I'll show it [in person] once I get there. ... My dad just raised me different.
"Everything for me, I got out of the mud. I didn't get drafted, but this is just a part of my story. I made it this far from a small school. ...[and now] I get the chance to play for America's Team. This is an opportunity for me to show everybody what I'm made of, and I can't wait to do it."
The Carter administration
Having been raised in Baltimore does raise the obvious question though because that's a town usually split between the Redskins and the Ravens -- given the Ravens aren't nearly as aged of a franchise as Washington is. So with Carter heading to the Cowboys, one would think there'd be some fun banter from family and friends, but not so fast. It's almost like he was willed to the Cowboys, despite the number of Ravens fans in his family.
One hilarious anecdote later and I truly understood what he meant by that.
"They're definitely going to cheer for me [and the Cowboys," Carter said with a huge grin. "Half of my family are Cowboys fans. My friends at JMU were Cowboys fans. It's almost like it's a match made in heaven. It's crazy because when we had my draft-day gathering, the balloons they go for me were stars. We had just changed our living room colors to navy blue and white.
"The day before the draft started, my dad was walking around with a cowboy hat on all day -- an actual cowboy hat. So it was almost like a bunch of subliminal messages put out there that I was supposed to go with the Cowboys."
If Carter can dig in and ultimately become an impact player in Dallas, he'll be yet another steal for the Cowboys in 2020. And maybe then his dad will add some boots to his wardrobe to go along with that hat, and truly embrace his inner Texan at that point, because why not? And by the way, it's Ron'Dell with a capital D, not a lower-case one; so put some respect on his name.
"It's a capital D," he said with a smile. "Please make sure you put a capital D."
For more insight on Carter and his thoughts on what fellow JMU standout Ben DiNucci brings to the Cowboys, take a look at the full interview above.