IRVING, Texas – Justin Durant is returning to Dallas.
As training camp nears, the Cowboys have signed the veteran linebacker to a one-year deal for depth as starting middle linebacker Rolando McClain faces a 10-game regular-season suspension.
A nine-year veteran, Durant played in 16 games (12 starts) for the Cowboys in 2013 and 2014, producing 73 tackles, 5 pass breakups and an interception. He signed a three-year contract with the Falcons in 2015 and started 12 games, totaling 82 tackles, 3 pass breakups and a forced fumble. Atlanta waived him in February.
To make room for Durant on the roster, the Cowboys waived defensive tackle Casey Walker.
It's currently unclear where Durant will fit in the Cowboys' linebacker rotation. Sean Lee made his first Pro Bowl last season after moving to weak-side linebacker ("Will"), Durant's primary position from 2013-14 along with some reps at middle linebacker ("Mike"). Anthony Hitchens has started games at all three positions, and Andrew Gachkar is another veteran option. Two 2015 draft picks, Damien Wilson and Mark Nzeocha, also will compete for playing time.
Asked late Monday afternoon about Durant's role, Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said, "I think that remains to be seen. I think we've got discussions to have there. Obviously Durant is very familiar with our system -- he's done a little bit of Mike and Will. Any time you've got a chance to bring a good football player like that on board – especially in the circumstances we have right here – it was nice to be able to get a guy who's familiar with what we're doing and can come in here and step right in and I think really help us out – help that young corps out in terms of young guys we have behind him."
No matter where he'll line up, Durant adds veteran experience to a linebacker group that must start the season without McClain once again.
McClain sat out the first four games last year due to a league suspension and returned to start 11 games. He finished the season with 97 tackles (9 for loss), 10 quarterback pressures, 2 sacks and an interception.
The Cowboys re-signed McClain in March. He missed most of the Cowboys' offseason program due to a family matter but did report to the mandatory minicamp in June.
Even with McClain missing five games in 2015, the Cowboys kept Lee at weak-side linebacker and he delivered career-bests in tackles (156), tackles for loss (11) and sacks (2.5) in 14 starts, the second-most of his career.
With Durant signed, will the Cowboys keep Lee on the weak side and play Durant in the middle during McClain's suspension?
"The biggest thing about Sean is that he's just a team player – at the end of the day he wants to do whatever it takes to win," Jones said. "But certainly it's something that we're watching – Jason (Garrett) and Jerry (Jones) and myself and Will (McClay) – to make sure we do what's best for our football team. Sean played All-Pro caliber football last year and we certainly have to keep that in mind, and we also have to keep his health in mind – he also played all year, which was a big deal for us. You never say never on anything when you're trying to win football games, but obviously we know that was a good fit for him last year."
Set to travel to Oxnard, Calif., for training camp at the end of July, the Cowboys are leaving their options open with their linebacker rotation for now. The first priority for Durant will be getting acclimated again to football, as well as the defensive scheme, after spending most of the offseason as a free agent.
"We're going to have to be very guarded with Justin and what we do with him early," Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said. "We know he knows our system, and we know he's a pro and he can play really good football for us in this system and fits Rod's system. But we will have to manage it."