Cowboys defend their approach to acquiring high-risk players

Good chance Cowboys part ways with McClain (0:59)

ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer explains why it wouldn't be surprising if Dallas parted ways with Rolando McClain, considering the salary cap and his 10-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. (0:59)

OXNARD, Calif. -- As they take the field for their first training camp practice Saturday, the Dallas Cowboys have a league-high three players who will serve suspensions this season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.

And the team remains adamant about keeping its approach to acquiring high-risk players.

Linebacker Rolando McClain will serve a 10-game suspension, and defensive end Randy Gregory is facing a four-game ban, which could be extended to 10 games because of additional failed tests. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence will serve a four-game suspension.

The Cowboys' tolerance for players such as Gregory and McClain has not waned, even though this marks the third consecutive season the Cowboys will start the season with a player serving a suspension.

Gregory is at a drug rehab center, and McClain did not report to training camp. Both have been placed on the reserve/did not report list, creating two roster spots on the 90-man roster.

The Cowboys believe such suspensions are no different than injuries: They affect every NFL club.

"Some of the suspensions we're dealing with are sicknesses, and they're truly sensitive situations," Cowboys executive Stephen Jones said. "As we all know, it's a journey when you have those type of issues.

"I don't think you can take one wide swipe and say this is how we're going to do things. We'll continue to look at each individual [case] on its own merit. We won't have one particular policy. I do think these things come and go. Teams around the league are dealing with suspensions with major football players. That's part of our league. That's the business we're in. There's no exact science when you're dealing with human beings."

Perhaps not, but the Cowboys believe in taking risks with talented players. That approach puts them in a position to have more players potentially suspended than clubs that take a conservative approach to high-risk players.

Gregory, a top-10 talent, dropped to the bottom of the second round after failing a drug test at the NFL scouting combine prior to the draft. McClain, selected by the Oakland Raiders with the eighth pick in the 2010 draft, spent just three seasons with the Raiders. He was out of football in 2013 after the Raiders released him and he retired.

He spent a couple of months with the Baltimore Ravens in 2014 before retiring for a second time in April. Two months later, the Ravens traded him to Dallas for a conditional seventh-round pick.

McClain played well his first season in Dallas, but he was suspended for the first four games last season. He has played in only 24 of 32 games, and that's before he serves a 10-game suspension this season.

Lawrence, their second-best defensive player, led the Cowboys with eight sacks last season. He did it in the last nine games. Now, the Cowboys must figure out how to cobble a pass rush together after struggling last season.

This is the problem with trusting players who have substance abuse issues to have important roles on a team.

The NFL currently has 20 players facing suspensions this season. No other team has more than two players facing suspension.

"We're bringing in the right kind of guys, and then you take some risks and take some chances on some other guys to see if you can help them fit into that culture," head coach Jason Garrett said. "We have a number of great success stories [over] the last few years of guys fitting into that culture. Are we always right? No.

"We're going to help the guys who aren't able to live up to that right now, and we're going to move on from some guys as well. We've done that before, too."

Actually, the number of Cowboys success stories from the past few years concerning players with off-the-field issues begins and ends with wide receiver Dez Bryant.

Those issues are why Bryant, a top-10 talent, dropped to 24th in the first round. He has had some issues as a member of the Cowboys, but he has caught 412 passes for 5,825 yards and 59 touchdowns, and he earned a five-year, $70-million contract a year ago.

"The overwhelming strength of this football team is the culture of the football team," Garrett said. "That starts with the guys we have on our team. If you go down the line and look at Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Doug Free, Jason Witten,Tony Romo, Tyrone Crawford, Sean Lee, Barry Church -- we can keep going on and on and on.

"I've been fortunate to be in this league for north of 25 years, and I'm not sure I've ever been around better character guys than these guys. That's the culture and the foundation of our football team."

Still, the culture Garrett raves about hasn't been strong enough to keep players from having off-the-field issues. The failures have been far more common than the successes.

Josh Brent, Lawrence, McClain, Gregory and Greg Hardy each had off-the-field issues when the Cowboys acquired them. All missed time because of those issues.

Brent, a seventh-round pick in the 2010 supplemental draft, had a DUI in college. He missed the final four games of the 2012 season and eventually spent six months in jail after being convicted of intoxication manslaughter in a car accident that resulted in the death of teammate Jerry Brown. Brent has since retired.

The Cowboys signed Hardy to a one-year deal last season after he spent the final 15 games of the 2014 season on the commissioner's exempt list because of his role in a domestic violence incident. Hardy, later suspended for the first four games of 2015 for violating the league's personal conduct penalty, was a disruptive locker room force in Dallas.

The Cowboys did not re-sign him, and he remains a free agent.

"Anytime you acquire a player, we try to, as best we can, do as thorough a background check as we can on him as a player and as a person," Garrett said. "We try to get our arms around who that guy is and what makes them tick.

"To make some blanket statement is not fair to the process. We do know people are human beings. There's no such thing as a perfect player or no such thing as perfect person. We try to make our best judgments to help our football team."