IRVING, Texas - It was called by many in the Cowboys front office a "low-risk" move.
And while that's still probably the proper classification of the trade to acquire Rolando McClain, the Cowboys continue to see progress. So much progress that the 25-year-old, twice-retired linebacker is about to get first-team reps at middle linebacker this week.
The Baltimore Ravens meet the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX.
While head coach Jason Garrett wouldn't call him a starter by any means, it's at least a start in getting a proper evaluation on McClain, who was the No. 8 overall pick of the Raiders in 2010.
Now, the tricky part is McClain is a true middle linebacker and he'll be taking reps from Justin Durant, arguably the team's most productive linebacker in camp and one of the better overall defenders on the entire defense.
So getting McClain more work with the first-team unit means Durant will slide to the weak-side spot (Will), where he mostly played in Detroit. So that domino-effect will likely push Bruce Carter either to the bench, or it's possible the Cowboys could move him to the strong-side.
"At the end of the day, we need to find our three best linebackers and our best combination of those guys to start for us in base, and then there are some roles in nickel as well," Garrett said.
And that's something the Cowboys will try to figure out either in this next preseason game against the Dolphins or maybe even into the final exhibition game against the Broncos on Aug. 28. Don't be surprised if McClain gets some snaps in the game, seeing as he has yet to play in a regular-season game since 2012 with the Raiders.
Garrett said getting reps for McClain is the top priority, especially with the first-team unit, something the Cowboys tried to do earlier in camp but McClain was held out with multiple injuries.
"I just think as much as anything else, he needs to play in the scheme and needs to play in games, where things are happening fast and conditioning is a factor and going from one play to the next play is a factor and still doing all that [communication]," Garrett said. "He's a smart football player. He's done this all throughout his career. I think he'll get more and more comfortable with that as he goes. It's a challenge for any inside linebacker making all those calls. He just needs to play in games and hopefully get better at it."
McClain got some second-team snaps against the Ravens Saturday night at AT&T Stadium.
"Rolando did a good job. He played more snaps for us, he did some really good things," Garrett said. "He's showing he's a physical player. He'll run to the ball. There was a play on our sidelines where he chased it down and knocked the ball out. We've seen a lot of that in practice. He has to play, too. He has to play in the system."
But Garrett pointed out that playing the middle linebacker spot is more than just running to the ball and making tackles.
"There is some responsibility there for that Mike linebacker to communicate and I think his communication was good at times …" Garrett said. "Other times it was not what we need it to be, particularly when you're playing with a younger group. You've got to make sure everyone gets lined up. There were some good things with him as well, but definitely some things we need to address. But he's certainly warranting an opportunity to compete for one of those spots in there." [embedded_ad]
If this trickle-down effect means Carter is out of a starting job, it will be a big blow to the fourth-year linebacker who is in the final season of his contract. Carter is coming off a 2013 campaign that saw him make 122 tackles, but his impact on the overall defense failed to meet expectations.
Even in the last preseason game, Garrett said there was both good and bad in Carter's play.
"I thought Bruce did fine," Garrett said of Carter's performance against the Ravens. "Didn't like the holding call that he had. Thought that was a legit call. But he showed up a little bit in the game, both in the run game and defending the pass. Good cover guy. He made another one of those third-down stops when they tried to throw that under route on the left-hand side."
However the starters shake out, Carter seemingly has a spot on the nickel defense and he could be the primary nickel 'backer.
All of these changes, though, are predicated on McClain becoming a starter in the middle, something the Cowboys are still unsure will happen.
But he's definitely going to get the opportunity, and it begins this week.