The Dallas Cowboys signed veteran linebacker Justin Durant to a one-year deal Monday in hopes of filling the void left by middle linebacker Rolando McClain, who has been suspended for the first 10 games of 2016 for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Durant, who played with the Atlanta Falcons in 2015, was a convenient and familiar option. He played with the Cowboys in 2013 and 2014, starting 12 games, and knows the system well.
He will give the Cowboys a veteran option to compete with Anthony Hitchens, Mark Nzeocha and Andrew Gachkar at middle linebacker in place of McClain. Pro Bowler Sean Lee will remain on the weakside.
What remains unclear is whether McClain will have a place on the Cowboys at all once his suspension has ended.
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There is a push within the locker room and some levels of the front office to move on from McClain, who was suspended for the first four games of 2015 for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He has also disappointed the coaching staff by skipping off-season workouts the past two seasons.
Owner Jerry Jones cites the salary cap as the big reason the Cowboys are keeping McClain on the roster.
The Cowboys re-signed McClain to a one-year, $4 million contract, including a $750,000 signing bonus, on March 9. The league suspended McClain on June 30.
McClain has forfeited his signing bonus, per the collective bargaining agreement, but his release would prevent the Cowboys from collecting on the payment.
“There are paperwork issues that impact the team like the salary cap, without being trite,” Jones said. “That is an issue there. Then when I look on balance I realize we all look and say, ‘Here is a really great player that seems to not be there to answer the bell at key times,’ and I see that. On the other hand, we have had some very successful days with him. That would be one reason for looking how things go.
“You just want to think it through. When you find something that makes the decision for you there is no need to going into other reasons — probably the cap situation for us.”
Jones admittedly has a soft spot for McClain, whom he talked out of retirement in 2014. McClain has started 23 games for the Cowboys the past two seasons.
Executive vice president Stephen Jones understands the cap situation as well as anyone. He is the team’s top cap expert. But the final decision remains fluid in his mind.
“Those are things we will continue to talk about,” Stephen Jones said. “We are certainly aware of his situation. When we reconvene here in the next week or two, we will continue look at that and see where it is. Right now, it is where it is in terms what his financial situation is with us. It’s not really costing us anything right now. We will continue to monitor and see where he is and make a decision from there.”
As far the Cowboys are concerned, the only decision that has been made is that McClain will have a roster spot going into training camp.
That doesn’t mean he will put on a Cowboys uniform on at all in 2016. Even Jerry Jones acknowledges as much.
“We made a final decision that we don’t want to pay the price on the cap,” Jerry Jones said. “That might not have him on the football field and may not have him on the football field as we get toward the end of the year or the playoffs. I’m not making that decision at all as to whether he will be on the field. But I can make the decision that we will keep a roster spot there for him because of cap considerations.”