It’s no secret that Dallas Cowboys veteran star linebacker Sean Lee is as good as any in the game. It’s also no secret that he has a lengthy injury history. Out of a possible one hundred and thirty-seven games he could have played, he’s missed forty-six of those. He has missed these games due to a lengthy list of injuries, that includes a dislocated wrist (2011), big toe (2012), ACL (2014), hamstring and concussion (2016), hamstring (2017) and hamstring again this season. This doesn’t include the two ACL injuries he had in college at Penn St in the 2008 & 2009 seasons. Lee himself admits, that avoiding injuries has been nearly impossible. He also knows that the Cowboys have been patient with him and at some point, they may just say enough is enough. His play on the field has never been in question and is actually why the Cowboys have stuck with him through the injuries. With that in mind, Dallas had to plan for the future and very real possibility that Lee could miss time again. They drafted Jaylon Smith, who had to sit his rookie year due to a major knee injury, and he has been a great addition now that he’s healthy.
This year, however, they drafted Leighton Vander Esch, from Boise St, as insurance for Lee. There were some concerns if Vander Esch would be able to transition to the pro game, after only having one year of top-notch production at the college level. He looked like he was everything the Cowboys saw in him when they drafted him. From the start of preseason, it was clear he was their future at linebacker and a great replacement for Lee, in the event he would get hurt again. They were smart to do so, as Lee has missed five of the ten games so far and is expected to miss another month.
Each time Lee has had to miss, Vander Esch has stepped in and not only filled the role but has played lights out. An example was this past Sunday versus the Philadelphia Eagles, Vander Esch started for the injured Lee and racked up thirteen tackles and his first career interception. He also had a game-saving tackle late in the fourth quarter. Prior to that, in weeks five and six when Lee was out, Vander Esch again stepped up and had big games as well. He fourteen and eleven tackles in those contests. On the season so far, he has a total of seventy-eight tackles, which comes out to an average of roughly eight and a half per game. That’s a full tackle more per game than what Lee has averaged for his career. It’s been obvious that he is ready for the starting role and he’s proven everytime he’s been given the opportunity.
As you can see, the Cowboys will have a big decision this off-season as what to do with Sean Lee. He is signed through the 2019 season and counts against the books for $7 million next season after that he becomes a free agent. The problem is, that the Cowboys will have to decide before then. Do they keep him as the starter and continue to keep Vander Esch as a backup and then possibly let Lee leave in free agency if he doesn’t resign? Or due to the play of the rookie, do they ask him to take a pay cut and a reduced role with the team?
Ultimately, it will be if they feel Vander Esch is ready. I think he is and his play confirms such. He’s much younger, athletic and comes at a much cheaper price tag. So if the Cowboys feel the same, then it will depend on what Lee decides. Is he okay being a backup and mentor to the rookie? Or will he want to continue to be the starter and play out his contract? If so, do the Cowboys re-sign him to a deal? A lot of questions to be answered and I believe the writing is on the wall. It’s time for the passing of the star!