Machota: One-on-one with Will McClay - From standout players to what excites him most about Cowboys

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By Jon Machota Aug 14, 2019

OXNARD, Calif. — This year’s training camp has been a much more enjoyable experience than last year’s for Will McClay. The Dallas Cowboys’ vice president of player personnel is able to move around without the use of a walking boot on his left foot.

McClay tore his Achilles tendon a year ago while running and now says he’s 85 to 90 percent recovered.

Those who have suffered the injury feel for anyone in a similar situation, which was the case for McClay when he saw NBA star Kevin Durant injure his Achilles during the NBA Finals.

“Yeah, automatically (felt for him) because I’ve been through it,” McClay said. “And I’ve been through it a time and a half because I did the other one. So when you see it happen, and people don’t realize, the Achilles, like I never thought about the Achilles until I blew mine. It’s a tough injury.”

McClay is in his 17th season with the Cowboys. His ascent in Dallas’ personnel department began a year after he was the assistant director of pro scouting for the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the last seven years, McClay has gone from assistant director of player personnel to obtaining his current role in 2017.

He’s been an essential part of assembling one of the NFL’s most talented rosters, which has led to interest from other teams interested in making him their general manager.

With the Cowboys only two practices away from ending the California leg of their training camp, The Athletic caught up with McClay to talk about everything from Game of Thrones to players who have caught his eye during camp.

Here is that conversation.

The Athletic: What did you do to get away from football for a little bit between the end of minicamp and the start of training camp?

Will McClay: Well, I watched Game of Thrones because everyone was talking about it. I had never watched an episode of it, and I powered through that during the offseason. And then spending time with my kid and seeing my family. That’s get-away time. I got to become a better fisherman because my son taught me how to fish.

Were you disappointed in the final episode of Game of Thrones?

Nah, I wasn’t. I went through the whole deal of calling it Dungeons and Dragons. But it was entertaining. I powered through it.

What motivates you most at this point in your career?

Wanting to be part of a team that wins a Super Bowl. Having a piece in it and a hand in it and being a part of something. The biggest thing, to me, is winning. All the work that the guys put in, from the players to the coaching staff to ownership and having a belief. And then having a piece in it and trying to do my best and having a good team to work with, as far as the scouts and them doing their jobs, that’s huge for me. That’s a team environment, and I love that.

What excites you most about this current team?

The opportunity at hand. I get excited about that. Seeing how the young guys mix in with the guys that have been here, and the older guys taking them under their wing. And just that team concept and having a chance to be good. That’s big.

Is it the best team since you started working for the Cowboys?

I don’t think you know until the season starts, because it’s just like after the draft, people say, ‘Oh, you had a great draft or a bad draft.’ Well, you don’t know until you get them all together. Now, saying that it’s a great class or a great group of players, you don’t know that until they achieve and we go through and we see. We’re not a great team until we get to the top spot.

Who are some players who have caught your eye during camp?

Offensively, I’d say (Tony) Pollard has done some really good things. Jon’Vea Johnson. Brandon Knight kind of showed up and has done some good things. Defensively, we’ve had a couple of vet guys that have shown up. Kerry Hyder and Christian Covington have shown up. Trysten Hill is beginning to do some nice things. I think Luke Gifford is popping in and doing stuff. And then Donovan Wilson, too, from a young guy standpoint.

Can Pollard play all three downs immediately?

Definitely feels like he can do all of it if he needs to. We saw him as a space player that could probably carry the ball on all three downs, but then for him to come in and pick up protections and do all the things that he’s done — it’s a very difficult deal for a running back to come in the NFL and understand protections and understand coverages and understand defenses, why they do things. And he’s got a unique way of doing that. He can take it from the board, when you’re drawing it up, to the field. He’s just unique in that way. So it’s been really surprising just to see how quickly he’s up to speed on things.

How much more difficult will your job be after Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper take up a large chunk of the team’s salary cap?

It makes it challenging, but it’s a good challenge because we follow the recipe that we’ve used to get these young players. Now we have to figure out if we can pay them because they are good enough. It’s just to keep that thing going and trying to find young talent. Everybody wants to have a part in the process. We look at it through free agency, through the end of the preseason cuts, all of that stuff. They are all different parts of the draft for us, so we’ve got to find ways to do that because we have good players and that’s just the way the NFL is.

What’s the secret to finding a franchise quarterback late in the fourth round, like you guys did with Dak Prescott?

It’s being lucky. Being lucky, and it’s using the experience of all the different people. As scouts, you’re looking for that prototype deal, and then you don’t take into consideration the other parts that make a human great. And we were lucky. And Scott Linehan stood on the table for him with how he was. Once we got to know him, everybody kind of felt it a little bit, but you don’t know it until you really get him as to how much he can affect the upward growth of an organization and the team.

What’s the toughest position to evaluate?

Quarterbacks.

What’s the second-toughest?

It’s probably receiver. Because the way college football is played now, you see these receivers with these great numbers and all that stuff because it’s so spread out. Now they come to the league, they don’t know how to do the things that we do in the league because of how college football is played. It’s a difficult position.

You guys are often working out free agent players throughout the year, but we get to see some of those workouts during training camp. What’s the best thing a player can do in one of those workouts and what’s the worst thing they can do?

The best thing a guy can do is be in shape, because you’ve got to be ready at all times. When we call you, there’s a need. And you need to take advantage of that opportunity. The worst thing a guy can do is be out of shape. We’re not going to bring someone in here that’s not in shape and not going to be able to learn things and put themselves or other people in harm’s way because they are not ready for the opportunity.
 
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