When the Dallas Cowboys selected Boise State star linebacker Leighton Vander Esch with the 19th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, it was clear the team was preparing for a future without Sean Lee. The rookie dazzled out of the gate, racking up an impressive 140 tackles and wasted no time earning All-Pro honors. He showed up just in the nick of time as Lee missed nine games that season dealing with a hamstring injury.
Last season, Lee was viewed as just more of an insurance policy with the duo of LVE and Jaylon Smith expected to hold down the fort. The Cowboys were able to get Lee to agree to a restructured deal that freed up $4 million in cap space. It’s a good thing they did as Vander Esch missed seven games last year with a neck injury. Lee did a great job filling in, playing a full 16-game season for the first time in his career. There were times where Lee flashed a little bit of his old self. He finished with 86 total tackles, including a 17-tackle performance against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 16.
The veteran linebacker will be back this season as he signed a one-year deal with playing time incentives worth up to a total of $4.5 million. Once again, Lee appears to be their insurance policy. With Vander Esch’s health progressing extremely well and Jaylon Smith being very reliable (he’s played in all 48 games of his career since stepping on the field in 2017), Lee isn’t expected to be overworked. And that could be the key to keeping the veteran healthy over the course of the year. Here is a snap breakdown of the Cowboys linebackers over the past five seasons:
Obviously, if 54 and 55 are good to go, Lee won’t be overextended. With a new coaching staff, the Cowboys may move some guys around. If Smith does more pass rushing, Lee may be needed to man the middle of the field a little more. While it can be a little unnerving watching Lee fly around the field, he’s actually done a pretty good job keeping his body right. Sure, he missed nine games in 2018, but he’s played in at least 11 games in four of the last five seasons.
The Cowboys did change out their strength and conditioning coach as Mike Woicik (who has six Super Bowl rings) was not retained by Mike McCarthy. Woicik has been with the Cowboys since 2011. Instead, the Cowboys brought in Harold Nash Jr. to join Markus Paul. Like Woicik, both of these guys have held down strength and conditioning jobs with the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
At this point in his career, Lee has a good feel for what he needs to do to keep his body in the best possible condition. Extra veteran days to keep him fresh go a long way. Also, with better depth at the position these days, the team can take their sweet time with him to make sure he’s fully recovered from any ailments.
And if all those factors aren’t enough, the Cowboys have also invested in some big-bodied defensive tackles that might be able to take a little bit of the wear and tear off the linebackers. With a true 346 pound 1-tech in Dontari Poe joining the team in free agency, the defense finally has a legit run-stuffing big man who can absorb blockers. His combination of strength and explosion will be a welcomed addition to the Cowboys interior defensive line.
Lee is such a cerebral player. While his athleticism isn’t what it used to be, he still has the smarts to be effective if he can just keep himself healthy. Returning in a reserve role, having a better grasp on what he needs to do to take care of his body, and a bulked up defensive tackle group should all aid in keeping the veteran linebacker available.