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Cowboys have history of low risks paying off on big talents

IRVING, Texas -- When word came that the Dallas Cowboys signed Darren McFadden on Friday, many wondered why.

McFadden hadn’t averaged better than 3.4 yards per carry in the last three seasons. He has played a full season just once. He has just one 1,000-yard season. According to its analytics, numberfire.com called McFadden the worst running back in the NFL the last three seasons.

So there’s that.

But there’s also McFadden’s pedigree. He was the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft.

Bill Parcells did not invent this philosophy, but he liked to say at one point a lot of people thought highly of this player, so why not take a look?

And that’s what the Cowboys are doing with McFadden. They have guaranteed him only $200,000 in the form of a signing bonus. The better he plays, the more he makes. It is the definition of a prove-it deal.

This is not the first time the Cowboys have pulled a move like this. Heck, this isn’t the first time the Cowboys have done this with a former Raiders disappointment in the last year.

Last July, the Cowboys made a trade with the Baltimore Ravens for linebacker Rolando McClain, who was the eighth overall pick of the 2010 draft for the Raiders. McClain went through three mostly disappointing seasons in Oakland.

McClain retired, decided to return with the Ravens but walked away again. When the Cowboys called last summer, he decided to come back. He started 12 games and had 108 tackles last season.

The talent that made him a top-10 pick was still there. He is a free agent who could still return to the Cowboys.

The Cowboys are hoping McFadden’s talent is still there, too.

“Because of the ups and downs and certainly there were probably a few more downs than ups, people tend to overlook that for 2010 and 2011 among running backs with 300 or more carries, Darren had the highest yards per carry by more than 20 percent over the next guy,” McFadden’s agent, Ian Greengross, said. “So he did have some success. Unfortunately he was injured a lot and he will tell you it wasn’t necessarily the Raiders being the Raiders. It was also Darren himself. He couldn’t stay healthy and he just didn’t have things go his way. He’s not saying it’s the Raiders. He’s not pointing the finger at them.”

The Cowboys have gone this route plenty of times in their past. One of their best examples is on their coaching staff. Marc Colombo was a first-round pick of the Chicago Bears, but injuries curtailed his career there. The Cowboys signed him in 2005 and he became their starter at right tackle from 2006-10.

The Cowboys have three former first-round picks of other teams on their roster. Amobi Okoye, another Greengross client, was the 10th overall pick in the 2007 draft by the Houston Texans, but he has not played in a game since 2012. Brandon Weeden was the 22nd overall pick of the 2012 draft by the Cleveland Browns. Newly signed linebacker Keith Rivers was the ninth overall pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2008 draft.

Another running back in the mix to replace Murray, Ryan Williams, was a second-round pick (No. 38 overall) by the Arizona Cardinals in 2011, but injuries have limited him to five games in his career. He spent last year on the Cowboys’ practice squad.

“When people have a high opinion from the first time they’ve ever rated you as a professional football player, then you already have a head start for that second or third chance if you need it because people always remember what you’ve done,” Greengross said. “Now, the NFL is not a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. It’s a what-are-you-going-to-do-for-me-tomorrow business. But also I think also if they remember that talent is under there and if you go to a place that has been winning and has other talent around you, then it makes it easier for you to bring out your full talents in that new place. The reason they have had the success with the Rolando McClains and some of the others is because the talent is there and rather than that player coming in and being the sole focus of trying to move a team up, they can be a part of a team and move his own game up and then help the team.”