The contract extension for linebacker Jaylon Smith earlier this week was a reminder that the Cowboys have two young, dynamic linebackers who should patrol the middle for years to come. Smith, and his running mate Leighton Vander Esch, are already thought of as among the best duos of off the ball linebackers in the NFL. Credit the Cowboys drafting, not everyone was sold on Vander Esch, and their risk-taking, not everyone thought Smith would play football again. The ascendancy of that pair has had the side effect of knocking an old vet into a part-time role.
There was once a time when the Cowboys defense basically couldn’t function without Sean Lee in the middle. The statistics were a stark contrast between the times Lee was on the field and the times he was not. The problem with that equation was that Lee just couldn’t stay on the field. His injury history is notorious. It still haunts him now.
Once the Smith/Vander Esch pairing was firmly entrenched, Lee was asked to move to a new position, the part-time role of the strong-side linebacker. Last year, Damien Wilson held that role and played on 28% of the defensive snaps. That’s the kind of usage Lee can expect this season, and maybe the reduced playing time will help him stay healthy.
His injury problem has already reared it’s ugly head this preseason as Lee was hurt on the very first padded practice out in Oxnard. A sprained knee kept him out of the Oxnard portion of training camp and the last two preseason games. His hope is to return in Saturday’s game against the Houston Texans. Lee has practiced this past week at the Star and would like to get some real game action.
“I feel great,” Lee said after Thursday’s practice. “Being back with the guys is something I always enjoy, and the trainers did an unbelievable job. I’m ready to keep building and get ready for the season and continue to progress off this week.”
“I think it’s just good to get live reps, particularly as a linebacker tackling live (in practice) is something we don’t do,” Lee said. “Being able to get that under your belt, that live full rep at full speed always helps.”
In year’s past, any bruise or sprain would have kept Lee in bubble wrap during the preseason as his presence was an essential element of the defense. Those days are gone. Lee can still play a vital role, and he would be the primary backup in case of injury to a starter, but he is no longer essential. He recognizes his new reality but is determined to help the team were he can.
“I’m working on staying healthy,” Lee said. “I think I can help on the field. I still feel like I’m able to make plays when I’m able to practice and play consistently, and that’s my goal.”
He needs to balance health with getting reps, and he’ll start that process on Saturday. Fortunately for Dallas, it’s no longer a do or die situation.