Cowboys Surprisingly Cut Defensive Starter Ahead of Week 1

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones

Getty Cowboys owner Jerry Jones

The Dallas Cowboys continued its 80-man roster trim by releasing safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the team announced Thursday.

The move is something of a surprise as the veteran safety inked a one-year, $4 million deal, with $2.5 million guaranteed, in free agency. His departure is expected to clear $1.5 million in salary-cap space.

Chosen by the Green Bay Packers with the No. 21 overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft, Clinton-Dix made 351 combined tackles (275 solo), 25 pass breakups, 14 interceptions, and eight quarterback hits across 71 games (65 starts) for Green Bay. His best season came in 2016 when he collected 80 tackles, seven pass deflections, and five INTs, earning Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors.

Clinton-Dix, 27, was considered a likely starter opposite Xavier Woods for new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and assistant secondary coach Al Harris, a former Packers cornerback, and the replacement for Jeff Heath, who defected to the Las Vegas Raiders this offseason.

But the marriage never went according to plan; Clinton-Dix labored through a nondescript training camp during which he was outplayed by fifth-year S Darian Thompson. Whispers of his potential exit began as early as Aug. 23.

“Cowboys signed Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in March to be their starting safety. Based on camp so far, that won’t be the case,” Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News reported. “Darian Thompson more impressive so far. This competition will continue to unfold. Clinton-Dix signed a one-year contract with $2.25M fully guaranteed.”

Unless or until Dallas adds another body at the position, Thompson is entrenched as Woods’ bookend with sophomore Donovan Wilson functioning as the primary reserve. It’s possible, if not probable, that secondary coaches Harris and Maurice Linguist also ask cornerbacks Daryl Worley, Chidobe Awuzie, and Reggie Robinson to pull double duty.

“We really try to challenge the guys, and we brought in a mindset day one of — I think one of the worst things you can do is say, ‘This is what I am,'” Linguist recently said, via USA Today. “What we always do on the back end is plug and play the next best person, the next best player, not necessarily just the ‘backup of the position.'”

Clinton-Dix, meanwhile, is the eighth player the Cowboys have axed over the last 36 hours. The club has until 4 p.m. on Saturday to form its final 53-man regular-season squad.

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Earl Thomas Momentum?

The Cowboys expressed little (public) interest in former Ravens and Seahawks safety Earl Thomas prior to Clinton-Dix’s release. Perhaps now, with a void left behind, they’ll contact Thomas, right? Losing Clinton-Dix means possibly gaining the seven-time Pro Bowler, yes?

“No,” Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said Thursday on 105.3 The Fan, per The Athletic. “Obviously won’t speak to any specific players, but certainly we’ll be trying to improve our football team.”

NFL Network’s Jane Slater reported Monday that “no overtures” have been extended to Thomas, who’s languishing on the open market after punching a Ravens teammate at training camp. Slater dutifully checked into the matter upon Woods tweaking his groin during the team’s Blue and White scrimmage Sunday evening.

On Tuesday, Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones offered his own update — if it even could be called that. The ever-loquacious Jones, purposely keeping his cards close, wouldn’t confirm nor deny that he’s communicated with Thomas’ camp.

“Discussions directly with Earl (Thomas) … we have not had any, but I have not had any either,” he said on 105.3 The Fan. “Discussions internally. We have discussions. Certainly, he’s an outstanding football player. We’re sitting here at personnel time and we’re looking for ways to get better. He’d be one of several we’d discuss during this particular time as we finalize this roster. It would be a misleading thing to say we haven’t discussed him, it would be a misleading thing to say that we have.”

NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport previously reported that Dallas isn’t expected to sign Thomas, though that obviously might change in the wake of Clinton-Dix’s removal from the roster.

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Follow Zack Kelberman on Twitter: @KelbermanNFL