The 2018 season didn’t go as planned for Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee. The former All-Pro battled injuries all season, recorded his lowest tackle total since 2010, and lost his starting job to rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.
Even in the seven games he did play, Lee did not look like the linebacker we were used to seeing as he battled a hamstring injury in 2018. The last time we saw the Cowboys defense on the field in Los Angeles, on a third and long play with under a two minutes left, Lee made a bad read and was unable to shed a block, allowing Jarred Goff to get a first down that ended up being the dagger in the heart of the Cowboys’ season. (We have to say that Jeff Heath was the primary reason this play worked for the Rams).
Jared Goff just mastered the incredibly slow, incredibly effective spin move.pic.twitter.com/Zm6CxqiSgU— Sporting News (@sportingnews) January 13, 2019
As the Cowboys walked off the field that day, many believed that was the last time we would see number 50 with the star on his helmet. With Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith blossoming into stars at the linebacker spot, and Lee set to make a costly seven million in 2019, it did not seem likely the veteran would be back in Dallas.
But the Cowboys and Lee got together in early March and announced that he would be taking a pay cut on his 2019 contract to stay with the team.
Here is the breakdown on Sean Lee’s reworked contract: Base salary - $2 million 53-man roster bonus - $500,000 46-man roster bonus - $1 million 50% play-time - $1 million 65% play-time - $1 million 80% play-time - $1 million 80% play-time, playoffs - $500,000 His cap number will be $6.01 million, saving about $4 million.
Just days after it was announced Lee would be taking a pay cut, the Cowboys lost their starting SAM linebacker Damien Wilson in free agency. In 2018 Wilson played in all 16 games recording 37 total tackles, two tackles for loss, and one sack. Replacing Wilson’s production was not a huge concern for Dallas, but someone had to take over the role of starting SAM linebacker, and Dallas turned to the veteran Lee.
When he was playing the WILL linebackers spot, when healthy, Lee was one of the best in the game. He constantly would make tackles in space and was the heart of the defense. Who could forget in the 2017 season during the “All or Nothing” series when Lee had to basically coach the defense himself, telling ex-Cowboys’ secondary coach Joe Baker the defense they called was physically impossible to execute?
Why is Sean Lee so important to Dallas? Here’s the in-game conversation between Lee & Joe Baker (was let go by Dallas this offseason) after NYG scored a TD to go up 10-3. Cowboys coaches called a defense that was physically impossible to execute, and Lee had to tell him so. pic.twitter.com/QcfA6vqXo8— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) May 10, 2018
In that same game, Lee recorded 18 total tackles and seemed to know what the Giants were going to run before it even happened.
Sean Lee is ridiculous. On the 2nd camera angle, look how early he knows where the play is going. pic.twitter.com/5ECCuRlITQ— Cowboys Nation (@CowboysNation) December 10, 2017
There are plenty of games you could use as examples of what Lee meant to the Dallas defense when he was on the field. They seemed lost without him, but with the emergence of Vander Esch and Smith, this was no longer the case. The Cowboys had two younger, healthier linebackers ahead of Lee, and it made no sense to keep him as the starting WILL linebacker.
Now as the SAM in the defense, Lee will get significantly fewer snaps than Smith and Vander Esch will. Damien Wilson was played only 286 defensive snaps in 2018 which was 27.9% Lee will basically be on the field in running situations. He will be forced to deal with more blockers at the point of attack, but not being on the field so much could be very beneficial to Lee’s longevity.
Linebacker is one of the most physical positions in all of football, and despite Vander Esch and Smith being young, they both have dealt with injuries in their career. This is where Lee can come in handy. He can serve as a Swiss army knife on the defense, and if one of the starters goes down you have a former All-Pro ready to step in. Lee even reportedly will play some special teams in 2019 with his limited snap count at SAM linebacker.
Veteran Cowboys LB Sean Lee will be used on special teams in 2019, per Jason Garrett because of limited number of snaps he will get at SAM linebacker— Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) July 27, 2019
Dallas was very lucky in 2018 to have Smith and Vander Esch both play in all 16 games, and odds are that will not happen again in 2019.
At the moment as the starter at SAM, Sean Lee does not have a huge role in the Dallas defense, but with one snap all that can change. Sadly, injuries are a big part of the NFL, and teams are very lucky if they can have mos of their starters stay healthy all season long. Right now Lee will not be the star of the show, but if circumstances come calling, Dallas is extremely lucky to have the general waiting in the wings.