With the departures of Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Dan Bailey, Sean Lee is now the elder statesman of the Dallas Cowboys (well, outside the seemingly ageless L.P. Ladouceur). But so far this season, Lee has not been his normally outstanding self on the field. He has missed tackles, looked a bit lost at times, and is being outplayed, or at least outproduced, by more than one other Dallas linebacker.
So has the General of the defense reached the end? Is it all downhill from now, or will he rebound. Michael Strawn and I had a little debate about this.
Michael: I believe we’re seeing a changing of the guard at the linebacker position. Sean Lee, for years, has been the Cowboys’ best linebacker and, when healthy, was one of the best in the entire NFL. But thus far in 2018, he’s not only not the best Cowboys linebacker, he’s hasn’t been the second best, either. Consider, through two games Lee has only four solo tackles and nine total tackles. Jaylon Smith has ten solo tackles and fourteen total. And rookie Leighton Vander Esch has more solo tackles (nine) and total tackles (ten) than Lee.
Keep in mind, Vander Esch has played only 45 defensive snaps while Lee has played 100. In fact, Lee ranks fourth on the Cowboys in snaps per tackles (11.1), behind Vander Esch (4.5), Smith (8.5) and Damien Wilson (8.8).
In short, Lee has had the least impact of the four linebackers, on a per-snap basis. He also has only one splash play (a tackle for loss). Lee averaged two splash plays per game last year. Now tackles don’t tell us everything about linebacker play but it’s a core component. I think it’s very possible that sooner rather than later Lee is a rotational piece and not the every down player he’s been his entire career.
Tom: It may be a different look to the linebacking corps, but that doesn’t mean Lee is less important. As you accurately said, tackles don’t tell us everything. Lee is still by far the best at being the on-field leader of the defense, calling the alignment and getting everything into place. The difference is that he no longer is having to carry so much of the load because he is head and shoulders above the other linebackers, which he has been for years. Now, he has other players who are also superior athletes and that can make the kinds of plays Lee can.
In short, he no longer has to do it all. In the past, he made some tackles because he was the only one who could get to them. Now, Jaylon Smith may be faster to the point of attack than Lee, and it looks like Vander Esch is as well. Wilson seems to have taken a step up. When Lee is on the field, he is flanked by one or two linebackers giving him more support than he has ever had.
And he no longer has to be on the field to keep the defense from falling apart. Vander Esch can spell him, and there is even more depth with Joe Thomas. Lee gets to take breathers he never really could in the past. If he gets a little nick, he can take a few plays to figure out if it is a good idea to go back in or not. That doesn’t mean his value has taken a sudden nose dive. He may be off to a bit of a slow start, but like many, he still had some rust to knock off in the first two games that Smith and Vander Esch didn’t. Expect his numbers to start going up, and the defense to keep playing well with the General running things.
Michael: Maybe. But realize you’re kind of saying the same thing I am... that Lee will be more of a rotational piece than an every down piece. And, it’s really exciting that he has players beside him who complement him as opposed to him having to make up for their deficiencies. Lee having a reduced load is actually a good thing, because the Cowboys finally have not one or two, but four other linebackers who all look like legitimate NFL players. Still, it’s not just the lack of stats thus far that has me thinking this way. The eye test says Lee simply isn’t playing at his usual standard.
Normally, Lee will make 3-5 plays per game where you just shake your head in amazement. Plays where he diagnoses what’s going to happen before the snap, then uses his athleticism to beat his man to the point of attack and single-handedly blow up the play. We haven’t seen any of that this year. Instead, we’ve seen things we’re not accustomed to seeing - missed tackles and poor angles. Yes, it’s early and rust and all that, but the combination of a few poor plays and the absence of great plays has me thinking his best days might be behind him.
Tom: A couple of poor games is not enough to convince me his best days are over. Like I said, he is probably going to bounce back and start to be more like what we are used to seeing. And that’s a good thing, because when he resumes making plays like you described, some of the other linebackers will be doing the same. It is just adding strength to strength.
Lee is still an asset for this defense, He will be back, and I expect that to happen this week. Reports of his decline are premature unless there is a lot more evidence. And though I don’t believe that is the case, the Cowboys are now better positioned for it than they ever have been during his career. For now, they have more talent across the board at linebacker than I can remember, and one of the best and deepest groups in the league - because, to a great degree, Lee is still part of it.
So that’s what we think. What about you? Let us know if you think this is the downhill slide for Lee, or if you think he is going to round back into form.