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The one player the Cowboys can’t afford to lose, Sean Lee, they often lose

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The importance of Sean Lee, and how he confuses the Cowboys future.

New York Giants vs Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It’s no secret that the Dallas Cowboys defense, and team, relies on linebacker Sean Lee like no other player. This isn’t to minimize the problems created when other players are absent, like Tyron Smith or Ezekiel Elliott, but the Cowboys can scheme around that eventually, once their coaching staff finally realizes that leaving Chaz Green on an island just might be a bad idea. But with Lee, the Cowboys are a different defense, and thereby a different team. And what Lee brings to the game you can’t scheme around.

I could wow you with the statistical difference of the Cowboys defense in 2017 when Sean Lee plays and when he doesn’t. Instead, let’s talk about what Lee brings to the game that makes him so special, and how his frequent absences put the team in a bind. Simply put, Lee has the highest football IQ on the defense, and maybe on the entire team. His ability to read an offense pre-snap and then get the defense in the right position and play-call is his biggest gift. Yes, he’s athletic. Yes, he is a sure-tackler. But what really sets him apart is his brain, and that’s just hard to replace.

Watch how many times Lee scans the offense pre-snap, then lifts his arm to tell the defense which direction the play is going. Or watch him point to a specific player who is going to get the ball. Or watch him shift the defensive line, or move a player in the secondary to the right spot. It seems like more than not, he knows exactly what play the offense is going to run before they run it. No other linebacker on the team, or defensive player in general, has that ability to the same degree that Lee does.

And that is why it is so hard to replace him, and why the defense suffers so when he is absent. Anthony Hitchens does a solid job of filling in, and Jaylon Smith is finally making real strides in his play, but neither can replicate Lee.

This leaves the Cowboys defense in a bind, because as we all know, Lee just can’t stay healthy. He is now 31 and has two more years left on his contract. Lee’s age, as with any player, makes him more injury-prone and that’s a scary thought for the Cowboys. The Cowboys want to start finding a suitable replacement, either internally or externally.

Lee’s greatness and his injuries conspire to cloud the Cowboys future at the position. For instance, Anthony Hitchens is a free agent after this year. Do the Cowboys believe he could be their weakside linebacker of the future or do they like him better in the middle? Should they pony up money in free agency to retain him? What about the progress Jaylon Smith has made and how does he figure into the picture? Do the Cowboys need to use a high draft pick on a linebacker?

These are all good questions. You could argue that if Sean Lee had been healthy all year, the Cowboys wouldn’t be fighting for a playoff spot, they would be fighting for playoff seeding right now. That is the conundrum the Cowboys face. Lee is so good that he can single-handedly elevate the defense into a pretty decent unit. But he is injured so often that the Cowboys can’t always depend on him being there.

So heading into this offseason, Cowboys fans, what would you do? Would you go all-in on Anthony Hitchens as the future? Or maybe Jaylon Smith? What about spending some money on a free agent who could stabilize things? Or use a high draft pick on the linebacker situation in 2018?

What’s your take?