PHOENIX – During the 2014 season, Rolando McClain was a large, looming presence in the center of the Dallas defense. As the Cowboys' offseason wears on, his absence from their conversations seems to loom just as large.
It's been three weeks since the free agency window opened, and the Cowboys have added players while letting several others go. Through all the goings and comings, McClain has been a virtual non-entity in the preparations for the 2015 season.
Tuesday at the NFL's annual meetings, though, Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said the veteran linebacker hasn't been forgotten during free agency discussions.
"We're in talks with him, and we want him back – that's the best way to say it," Jones said. "We've got to just figure out something that works for both sides."
That's the most that's been said about McClain since he left the playoff loss to Green Bay early with an injury. The Cowboys traded for the former top-10 draft pick last summer, and he revived his career with an 81-tackle season in place of the injured Sean Lee.
"Rolando really affected some of our games last year. He played well," Jones added. "We're certainly in in the midst of trying to get him back on our team."
There's been no shortage of speculation that McClain's brief time in Dallas might already be over – for a variety of reasons. His litany of injuries last season and his history of premature retirement raise questions about what kind of contract he can command. On top of that, the Cowboys signed veteran middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley to the roster two weeks ago, giving rise to the thought that he'd be a replacement for McClain.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Monday afternoon that it'd be "unfair" to assume that McClain's time in Dallas was over, and that he had spoken with the veteran linebacker within the last week.
Either way, the linebacker corps promises to be an interesting puzzle for the Cowboys to put together when the season gets closer. Whether it's Brinkley, McClain or someone else manning the middle, Jones confirmed that the team would like to look at Sean Lee as the Cowboys' weak side linebacker going forward – both as a way of reducing injury risk and maximizing Lee's coverage abilities.
"At the end of the day I think we're looking hard at Sean, wanting to put him more in the Will spot," Jones said. "Getting a big Mike linebacker was important."
There's also the good problem of where to put Anthony Hitchens, who demonstrated his ability to play all three linebacker spots last season. Where he fits in 2015 is yet to be determined.
"Hitch obviously showed last year he can play all three spots, and that makes him very valuable," Jones said. "I fully expect him to grow from his rookie year to his second year and be even a better player, although he was a pretty damn good player last year."
Jones also touched briefly on the free agency addition of Andrew Gachkar from San Diego. The expectation is for Gachkar to provide standout special teams play, as well as depth in the linebacker corps.
It remains to be seen if McClain will rejoin the group for another season, but the Cowboys have made sure to line up their options behind the mercurial middle linebacker.