The story of Sean Lee’s career with the Dallas Cowboys has been one of excellent play mixed with unfortunate setbacks. Ever since he came into the NFL in 2010, it hasn’t been his performance or lack thereof, that has kept him from consistently being a force on the field. His body and its inability to stay healthy has been Lee’s biggest Achilles heel. When he’s right, he can still play with the best linebackers in the league, but as we all know, your best ability is availability, something Lee has struggled with.
Before the season, the Cowboys made a smart move by switching Lee to the strong-side linebacker spot. Running primarily out of a nickel package with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch as the linebackers, this was designed to limit Lee’s snaps in an attempt to keep him as healthy as possible.
In 2019, Lee would appear in all 16 games (first time in his career) with 13 starts and he performed quite well. As the third guy on the depth chart, he would rack up 86 tackles, four forced fumbles, a sack, and an interception.
Two performances specifically stood out for me when I watched Lee this past season. The first was in Week 7 vs the Philadelphia Eagles. Vander Esch left the game early with a neck issue and wouldn’t return. The Cowboys wouldn’t miss a beat, though, as Lee was arguably the best player on defense. He would tie Jaylon Smith and Jeff Heath for the team lead with seven tackles as the Cowboys dominated the Eagles 37-10. Two weeks later, after their bye week, the Cowboys traveled to Metlife Stadium to take on the New York Giants, and Lee was excellent once again. His 12 tackles tied Smith again for the team lead as the Cowboys picked up another impressive win 37-18.
Now, Lee is set to be an unrestricted free agent in March. Back in December, just prior to the Cowboys season finale vs the Washington Redskins, Lee talked about his future in Dallas:
“As you get older in your career, I think every year you take time in the offseason to evaluate where you are,” Lee said. “Being 10 years in, I think it’s natural for all players, especially at 10 years, to say, ‘OK, where am I at physically? What’s the right thing to do for me and my family?’ So, I’ll do that in the offseason for sure, but that’s going to come whenever that comes.
“I’m happy that I was able to be consistently on the field and in a lot of situations, being able to help and be effective. That was a plus for me, and that will be part of the evaluation, obviously.”
New Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan is no stranger to coaching linebackers. During his days as the head coach in San Francisco, he helped mold retired linebacker Partick Willis into a superstar. He made seven Pro Bowls and was named an All-Pro six times in his eight-year career. Also, in 2019, Nolan guided Demario Davis into becoming a first-team All-Pro. If he can get his hands on a healthy Lee, combined with Smith and Vander Esch, that’s a three-headed monster at linebacker.
Time will tell if Lee decides to return for his 11th season with the Cowboys. He showed in 2019 that he still has plenty left especially if he’s healthy. The Cowboys have a lot of decisions to make with their defense, seeing as 15 are set to be unrestricted free agents. There’s no doubt Lee will be one of the most important players the Cowboys will make a decision on. Will they bring him back to see what’s still left? We shall see.