While the signing of defensive lineman Henry Melton has received the most attention, the best news for the Cowboys defense during the free agency period came when linebacker Sean Lee was cleared for offseason workouts.
With the departure of longtime fixture DeMarcus Ware, Lee is now the undisputed leader of the Cowboys defense, a role that he has been growing into since Dallas traded up in the 2010 Draft to select the former Penn State star.
(In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that my time at Penn State coincided with Lee’s, and I covered him for several years, including multiple one-on-one interviews, and I always found him to be a great guy, along with a great football player, so I’m probably a little biased, but I try to stay as objective as possible.)
Unfortunately, it’s hard to talk about Lee without using the phrase “if he can stay healthy.” Injuries cost him three games during his first two seasons, and a toe injury forced him to sit out the final 10 games of 2012, while hamstring and neck injuries limited him to 11 games in 2013.
When he’s on the field, Lee’s impact is indisputable. Despite only playing in six games in 2012, he still finished fourth on the team in tackles, and in 2013 he ranked near or right at the top of the league in both tackles and interceptions until he was first sidelined by injuries in Week 10.
He was also instrumental last year in shutting down the NFL’s leading rusher, LeSean McCoy of the Philadelphia Eagles, who had one of his worst games of 2013 in Week 7 (Lee did not play in the Week 17 matchup). The Cowboys will desperately need Lee’s services to contain the shifty and slippery backfield of their division rivals, especially with the addition of former New Orleans Saint Darren Sproles. He also played a big role in containing the Washington Redskins dangerous Robert Griffin III, tracking down the speedy signal-caller several times in the Cowboys Week 6 victory.
But, having only played in 46 of a possible 64 games since entering the league, the “injury prone” label has been affixed to the Cowboys star, which is somewhat unfair.
Lee himself addressed the difference between being “injury prone” and having bad luck, but also acknowledged that he needs to find a way to stay healthy.
“I think I’ve had a combination of injuries, like the hamstring would be an injury-prone type of injury,” Lee said last month, according to ESPNDallas.com. “I think I’ve also had some bad luck where I got rolled up in a pile with my toe and I’ve gotten hit by my own guy in a pile.
“I need to find a way to stay healthy, whether it’s finding a way to be stronger and not having the hamstring deal or it’s hopefully having a little bit better luck. I need a combination of both going forward.”
Lee’s importance to the defense is easy enough to judge just by looking at the stat sheet, but his job as the “quarterback” on defense is just as important, especially with the recent moves to get younger on that side of the ball.
Now, more than ever, the Cowboys are counting on their most talented defensive player to not only make plays on the field, but also provide guidance and leadership before the snap and on the sideline. Luckily, that role isn’t foreign to Lee, who played behind, and alongside, standout All-Americans such as Tamba Hali, Paul Posluszny and (former Cowboy) Dan Connor at Penn State before taking over, and excelling, as a leader himself later in his career.
As much as Cowboys fans want to see Lee on the field for 16 games, no one wants that more than the man himself. Until he shows he can do it, it’s fair to be skeptical, but one man can only suffer so much bad luck. Neck injuries are scary, and nothing to mess around with, but Lee should be entering camp at 100% and the Cowboys defense could depend on him staying there.