IRVING, Texas (AP) - One day Rolando McClain is getting first-team work with the Dallas defense after owner Jerry Jones offers yet another hopeful plug that the former top 10 pick can fill a big void at linebacker.
The next, McClain is sitting out practice again, raising more questions about the desire of a player who walked away from the sport twice in Baltimore before the Ravens traded him to a team desperate to replace Sean Lee after a season-ending knee injury.
Justin Durant is the swingman as the Cowboys search, playing his more natural spot on the weak side when McClain is on the field and mostly filling the middle when McClain isn’t.
“I just go out there and play,” said Durant, who was the most logical replacement for Lee before McClain was added close to the start of training camp. “Wherever they tell me to go, I go.”
The Cowboys, who visit Miami in their third preseason game Saturday night, haven’t told McClain to go, as in leave, and don’t look like they will anytime soon.
Coach Jason Garrett said McClain had leg cramps at practice Tuesday, and that the team made the “right decision” to hold him out of practice Wednesday. He also missed time at training camp.
A day earlier, Jones essentially sounded like the Cowboys had found their starting middle linebacker on the scrap heap in a trade that sent a sixth-round pick to Baltimore while the Cowboys also got a seventh-rounder.
“I do think that we’ve got a chance to pull one out of our hat with McClain,” Jones said of the linebacker Oakland gave up on three years after taking him with the eighth pick in 2010.
Durant says McClain “has been working real hard to get back.”
“I can’t make any assumptions based off what’s happened in his career,” said Durant, entering his eighth season, and second in Dallas, after stops in Jacksonville and Detroit. “I just know he has come in here, he has been in the classroom going hard and on the field going hard. That’s all I can judge him on.”
Kyle Wilber starting on the strong side appears to be the one thing that’s settled for Dallas at linebacker. If McClain doesn’t become a regular, Bruce Carter will probably keep his job on the weak side while Durant plays the middle.
Carter underperformed last year when the Cowboys thought a switch to the 4-3 defense would turn him into a playmaking star. He thrived filling in for Lee before getting hurt late in 2012, but his name didn’t come up when Jones seemed to be listing the probable starters on his radio show by mentioning McClain, Durant and Wilber.
Carter’s outlook could dim further if rookie fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens shows any playmaking ability in the middle. The Cowboys drafted him higher than his projections as insurance for Lee, and already find themselves exploring that option.
“It’s our job to create competition in practice throughout these preseason games to make sure we have the best group out there and give them plenty of opportunities to show they’re part of it,” Garrett said. “And the other part of it is, too, you work the combinations.”
The Cowboys appear to have lost an option at middle linebacker in DeVonte Holloman, a second-year player who missed almost half of last season with a spinal problem and is out again with a neck injury.
Dallas sees McClain as the best fix for all the issues, which is why there’s no rush to judge his commitment.
“He’s big, he’s fast, he’s strong, he’s physical, he’s instinctive, he’s a good tackler,” Garrett said. “Having said that, he hasn’t played football in a couple years. We’re balancing those things and trying to create an environment for him to somehow, someway be his best and show us what he can do.”
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