IRVING, Texas – The Cowboys received word from the NFL on two suspensions on Thursday, one expected and one not so much.
For starters, the league made its ruling on DeMarcus Lawrence’s long-awaited suspension at four games – effectively denying the appeal the defensive end put in earlier this offseason.
On top of that, the club learned that -- for the second time in as many summers -- Rolando McClain has been suspended 10 games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Both rulings came down on Thursday afternoon, with McClain being the third Cowboys defender – along with Lawrence and Randy Gregory – to run afoul of the policy. Since this isn’t McClain’s first infraction, his suspension bumps up to 10 games without pay.
Word of Lawrence’s suspension first came down in April, and Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones later revealed that the organization would be appealing that penalty. The league’s decision to uphold the original ruling means the Cowboys will be without both of their starting defensive ends for the first month of the regular season.
As for McClain, it’s just the latest twist in what has been a roller coaster ride for the Cowboys since they signed him as an emergency addition in the summer of 2014. McClain was hired out of an early retirement to replace Sean Lee, who tore his ACL during spring practices two years ago.
After a mostly-successful 2014 campaign, he re-signed in Dallas on a one-year, $3 million contract – only to miss the offseason conditioning program after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Then, just weeks before the start of training camp last summer, McClain was hit with his first suspension and missed the first four games of the 2015 season.
The former No. 8 overall pick once again pieced together a solid season, as he finished with 80 tackles, two sacks and an interception in just 11 appearances. It was enough to earn him another one-year contract back in March – this one worth $4 million.
With McClain coming back for a third season, though, so too came his inconsistencies. After reporting for the start of the offseason conditioning program, McClain missed all nine of the Cowboys’ voluntary OTA practices for unspecified personal reasons. He participated on a limited basis in the team’s mandatory minicamp from June 14-16.
A 10-game suspension will be a clear disappointment for a defense that is sorely lacking in playmakers on the defensive side of the ball – but it can hardly be called surprising. All three of McClain’s contracts with the Cowboys have been one-year deals, and all of them have been heavily incentive based. The veteran linebacker stood to earn up to $2 million in gameday active roster bonuses this year, and another $1 million if he played 75 percent of defensive snaps – neither one of which look likely in the face of such a long absence.
As for the Cowboys, they’ll have to determine what to do about the void at the middle linebacker position. Sean Lee has played middle linebacker in the past, but he earned his first Pro Bowl selection playing on the weak side. Andrew Gachkar received the majority of the first-team snaps in the middle this spring, and Anthony Hitchens also has extensive experience in that spot.
While they figure that out, there’s also the battle at defensive end to consider. The Cowboys signed Benson Mayowa during free agency, and he looks likely to be Gregory’s replacement when he returns from a minor knee scope procedure in August. For the time being, it looks like David Irving, Jack Crawford and Ryan Russell will fight for Lawrence’s vacated spot.