Earlier this week, Cowboys Owner and GM, Jerry Jones mentioned on the Cowboys Flagship station that, once fully healthy, Sean Lee would return to his starting job in place of Dallas’ stellar rookie linebacker, Leighton Vander Esch. Vander Esch, the league leader in solo tackles, has already amassed more than 100 tackles on the season despite starting just 7 games, making the decision to move him to the bench a confusing one for many fans. During the Cowboys current 4-game winning streak, LVE has been an integral part of the defense alongside Jaylon Smith, leading many to anoint the duo one of the best young linebacking corps in the league. Again, this is with just 7 games started together.
The “hot hand” discussion is always an interesting one, particularly in these parts. In 2016, Jason Garrett and the Cowboys organization tabbed rookie signal caller, Dak Prescott over the franchise’s All-Time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, Tony Romo. Whether or not you agreed with that decision, there’s no disputing the Dallas passing attack hasn’t been the same since that pivotal moment. Because of this, the decision to return Lee to his starting role despite the impactful play of Vander Esch has left the fanbase somewhat divided. There’s no denying Lee’s impact over the years. When healthy, his ability to take over games and quarterback the defense is something few league-wide can match. The problem therein is the qualifier: when healthy.
As recently as last season, whenever Lee would miss a game, the defense would all but crater. The result was a 9-7 record as Lee missed several weeks of action, prompting Dallas to pursue an insurance policy in the form of the 19th overall pick, Leighton Vander Esch. The truth is, this was hardly a snap decision. Over the years, Sean Lee has missed approximately 40 games due to injury. More than that, he’s yet to complete a full 16-game regular season, and this season alone, he’s missed 7 of Dallas’s 12 games. Depending on who you talk to around the Star in Frisco, Lee may yet miss more time as he’s yet to complete a full week of practice since suffering a hamstring injury last month in Philadelphia. While this debate could be backed up another week as a result, it’s important to consider whether or not Lee’s insertion back into the starting lineup could potentially tamper with Dallas’ red-hot defense. So would it? Probably not.
Here’s the thing: when Dak supplanted Tony, it was at a position in which only one player can play. You don’t rotate quarterbacks in today’s NFL. The linebacker position, on the other hand, is a different story. Even if both Lee and Leighton are only suited to play the WILL, they can effectively utilize both players in different packages. The added benefit of such a method would be placing the oft-injured Lee on a “pitch count” of sorts in an attempt to preserve him and troublesome hamstrings for Dallas’ playoff push. Whether or not Lee is finally able to play four or more consecutive games this season remains to be seen -even with a lightened workload. Which brings us to another pressing question: what to do with Sean Lee beyond this season.
As stated above, Lee, 32 years old, has a long, detailed history of injuries, including but not limited to soft tissue injuries, ligament tears, and concussions. Knowing that, can the Cowboys really afford to keep all of their eggs in the former Nittany Lion’s basket? The signs point to “no.” Not only was Leighton Vander Esch drafted to act as an insurance policy, and a damn good one at that, he was tabbed to be Lee’s eventual successor. Obviously, no one could have anticipated on draft night he would already be playing at this high of a level but his rapid ascension does offer Dallas some wiggle room moving forward. If the team was to cut Sean Lee, it would save $7 million against the cap next season, and if you’ve already had to reduce a guy’s role just to keep him on the field in some capacity, do you really want to continue paying him at his former Pro Bowl level? Probably not, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.