OXNARD, Calif.– Fresh off his first practice back with the Cowboys, Justin Durant was refreshingly honest.
The South Carolina native is about to turn 31, and he's preparing to start his 10th season in the NFL. He's no stranger to the grind of an NFL season, and the thought of retirement crossed his mind.
"I thought about it. But I've been thinking about it for five years. But you just get that itch," he said Saturday. "Once I started looking at TV and seeing everybody going back to OTAs and stuff, I just figured I wasn't done yet."
Durant just signed with the Cowboys two weeks ago, but it's hardly as if he's been sitting around. The nine-year veteran started working out back in April with a hunch that someone might call him. Sure enough, faced with Rolando McClain's 10-game suspension, the Cowboys came calling in need of their former linebacker.
"We started communicating before everybody even knew what was going on, so I started getting back in the gym – doing two-a-days, working hard," Durant said. "I know basically what it takes to get ready for camp, because I've been doing it for nine years. So I've just been working out on my own, trying to get prepared."
The signing gives the Cowboys a versatile option to help offset the loss of McClain. Durant mainly played weak side linebacker during his two seasons in Dallas, in 2013 and 2014, but he has shown the versatility to play on the strong side and in the middle.
Asked about his eventual position in the Cowboys' defense, Durant said that hasn't been decided. But, as usual, linebackers coach Matt Eberflus will be sure to cross-train him at multiple spots.
While they're figuring that out, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett also said the coaches will be careful with their veteran acquisition. The Atlanta Falcons released Durant all the way back on Feb. 8, the day after Super Bowl 50. That means he's been out of the organized process of football for roughly six months.
"He wasn't in an offseason program, he wasn't in our offseason program, so we're going to be deliberate with him over the first few days of training camp to make sure he has his feet underneath him and he's ready to go," Garrett said. "But it's great to see him, he has a great spirit about him, he loves playing football, we're excited to have him back on our team."
Injuries have been a problem for Durant in recent seasons. He only played in 16 of 34 possible games during his two years in Dallas, and he missed three games with various injury problems last season in Atlanta.
Despite that, he still finished second on the Falcons with 82 tackles. And in 2014, before he landed on injured reserve with a torn biceps, Durant shined on the Dallas defense with 49 tackles, four passes defensed a fumble recovery and an interception in just six games.
"When he was here in '14, he was playing at a Pro Bowl level," said Sean Lee. "It's unfortunate that he had an injury, but the guy has made a ton of plays throughout his career."[embeddedad0]
Now, the question is whether Durant can rediscover that form – and enjoy a better run of health than he's experienced in recent years.
"I felt like I still had the ability to play, and I guess the organization felt like I could still play. So we're going to see if I can still play," he said.
If he can, then the thought of retirement will have to wait for at least another year, as the Cowboys' linebacker corps is extremely short on experience in the wake of McClain's suspension. That might mean he misses some personal time – Durant said his daughter isn't happy that he usually misses her birthday party – but he got his family's permission to sign on for another year.
"I asked her if she wanted me to stop playing, and she said 'Yeah.' So that made me kind of weak inside," he said. "So that's the main thing – I just miss a lot of family time. But I was thinking about it, and I sat down and talked to my family and they gave me the OK."
That's something the Cowboys will be glad to hear, as they seek to bolster a defense that is lacking in proven playmakers.
"He played some of his best football throughout his career for us," Garrett said. "I think he believes in this system, he certainly believes in our coaches and he responded well to it. I think he's excited to be back in this environment."