The Dallas Cowboys had some ups and downs last season, but no one can argue that one of the best things to come out of it was the emergence of linebacker Sean Lee as a force in the middle of Rob Ryan's defense. Going into 2012, everyone is expecting him to keep up his performance.
Except those who think he is going to step it up. In an article on ESPN, Gary Horton of Scouts, Inc. listed him number two on his list of breakout player for this season. Breakout player? This is the man who by consensus was the second best player on the defense, with only superstar and likely Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware showing more. It seems remarkable that he could be viewed as poised to be an even bigger star.
Remarkable, and very, very good. The full article is behind the ESPN pay wall, but Tim MacMahon of ESPN DFW conveniently quoted the pertinent part of it.
Lee made a bit of a name for himself in 2011, and surprised everyone by leading the team in tackles (105), tackles for loss (10) and even interceptions (four). By the end of 2012, everyone will know about him because I believe he can get even better. For a young player, he showed a lot of consistency. He is a terrific athlete with great range and a real nose for the ball. While a lot of people see him as a finesse player, he has more physicality at the point of attack than you might think. He has terrific composure and is capable of making the defensive calls.
At this time of year, we do focus a lot of out attention on the new guys on the team, but improvement by the veteran Cowboys will be a big part of any success the team has this year.
I think Horton is on to something here, and not just because I tend to imbibe the Kool Aid.
Why I say that after the jump.
One thing I have to get out of the way here. What is this "finesse player" thing? I seem to remember a hard hitting inside linebacker that could lay some wood out there (or, for a few games, a padded cast). This is another of those strange memes about the Cowboys that has a life of its own. For a suitable rejoinder, I will borrow this quote from our own Coty Saxman (in an e-mail discussing this article).
While we're at it...
DeMarcus Ware is a finesse OLB.
is a finesse QB.
is a finesse RB...
So, basically the finesse label is for anyone who doesn't get by on pure athleticism, but actually uses the skills relevant to the position. Finesse shouldn't mean non-physical.
Now that that is out of the way, let's look at just why Sean Lee may really be turning heads this year.
First is just his growth as a player. Like everyone else, he is now adding a full offseason of work. If he was able to show so much last year with the lack of OTAs and minicamp (due to something that really sucked), it only stands to reason that a player who already is known for hard work and excellent football smarts is going to capitalize on the additional coaching and preparation. He showed he was going at it very hard (perhaps a bit too hard) with his inadvertent hit on DeMarco Murray during the OTAs. He is still developing and learning the Ryan defense. Year three should see even more out of him. And it is only his second full season since he came into his rookie year injured and saw limited action.
Second, last year he played alongside Bradie James and Keith Brooking. While both were outstanding linebackers in their prime, 2011 was certainly something else. This year, he has Dan Connor, his old Penn State teammate, and Bruce Carter, who looked very good in shorts during the OTAs. Both would promise more help than James and Brooking provided, just on speed and quickness alone. There certainly were times last season when it was evident that Lee was the only inside linebacker with real range and speed. I can hardly wait to see what he does when the talent at the other ILB spot is more on a level with his.
Finally, the rest of the defense looks to be getting better around him as well. The secondary is certainly expected to be better, and there is hope that the line play will be better as the veterans also improve. Sean Lissemore is already getting some press as another defensive player who may be about to break out, and Jason Hatcher had a very good 2011 as well. Rookie Tyrone Crawford also may help here.
So the stars seem to be aligning around Sean Lee for the coming season. I actually think he has a very good reputation in parts of the media. During the draft, I heard some of the prospective picks described by commentators as "Sean Lee" types, and they did not mean it in a bad way. Any improvement will be all good. And given the kind of production he had last year, a "breakout" would mean a monster season.
Get your popcorn ordered.