IRVING, Texas -- Throughout their history the Dallas Cowboys have had success in finding players from small schools.
Tom Landry, Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt were legendary at it. Rayfield Wright was a basketball player at Fort Valley State and developed into a Hall of Fame offensive tackle. Ed "Too Tall" Jones was the No. 1 overall pick in 1974 out of Tennessee State. Cliff Harris came from Ouachita Baptist and turned into a Ring of Honor safety. Thomas Henderson was a first-round pick from Langston. Bob Hayes came from Florida A&M.
The current iteration of the Cowboys has one of the best small-school finds in Tony Romo. He won the Walter Payton Award at Eastern Illinois in 2002 but went undrafted. He signed with the Cowboys, did not throw a pass until his fourth season and is now one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Brandon Carr played at Grand Valley State, was a fifth-round pick in 2008 and is about to enter the final year of a $50 million contract.
But the small-school success that has worked so well for the Cowboys in their history has not been kind of late.
Since 2007, the best of the small-school lot has been defensive lineman Sean Lissemore, a seventh-rounder from William & Mary in 2010, and he has not been a Cowboy since a trade to the San Diego Chargers in 2012.
In 2013, the Cowboys drafted J.J. Wilcox in the third round out of Georgia Southern as a safety after he played running back for three years. After starting every game in 2014 and intercepting three passes, Wilcox took a step back last season.
The Cowboys' fourth-rounder in 2013, cornerback B.W. Webb, did not make the roster in his second season.
The rest of the Football Championship Subdivision (the old Division 1-AA) or lower draftees have been equally as forgettable in recent years: Matt Johnson, Eastern Washington, Caleb McSurdy, Montana, David Arkin, Missouri State, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Indiana (Pa.), Jason Williams, Western Illinois and Courtney Brown, Cal Poly.
In 2006, the Cowboys had success with Jason Hatcher (Grambling) and Pat McQuistan (Weber State). In 2004, they hit on Patrick Crayton out of Northwestern Oklahoma in the seventh round.
"I think it's important to evaluate the environment the player comes from," coach Jason Garrett said. "The big school, small school thing is a real thing. There's great value in getting a player from the SEC or the Big Ten or the Pac-12, the Big 12. These are the best conferences in college football. They play against the best guys in practice every day. They play against the best guys on Saturday afternoons."
Why is this applicable now for the Cowboys?
The Cowboys could be in position to select North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz with the fourth overall pick. They coached him at the Senior Bowl. They had a private workout with him. They had him in for a visit to Valley Ranch.
Wentz won two FCS national championships at North Dakota State. In his one game against a prime opponent from a big-time conference, he led his team to a 34-14 win over Iowa State of the Big 12 in 2014. It was the first start of his career. He completed 18 of 28 passes for 204 yards and did not throw a touchdown pass or an interception. He completed passes to eight different players and the offense put up 506 yards.
The Baltimore Ravens took Joe Flacco in the first round in 2008 out of Delaware, but he started his collegiate career at Pittsburgh. He has been a Super Bowl MVP and is the franchise's leader in touchdown passes and yards.
"We believe in competition and when you play against guys at the highest level of competition that's something that's a positive in the evaluation of the player," Garrett said. "Who's he competing against to win that starting job on his team? Who's he competing against in the games over the weekend? So that's an important thing. Having said there's been great players in this league that come from all different levels."