After an offseason with major roster changes and a significant youth movement, one can’t help but look at Linebacker Sean Lee as one of the last men standing for the older veterans. While he’s certainly sticking around this year, could 2018 be Lee’s last season with the Dallas Cowboys?
With Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, and Orlando Scandrick all departing over the last two months, a wave of change has hit the 2018 Dallas Cowboys. As we saw with Bryant and Scandrick, the Cowboys are willing to cut a veteran leader if the cap savings and other circumstances make it logical.
Sean Lee will be one of just three players 30 or older this season. The other two are specialists, Kicker Dan Bailey and Long Snapper L.P. Laoduceur. Those players tend to last longer than their offensive and defensive teammates.
That makes Lee the old man on campus. And as you would imagine, he carries a significant salary cap hit given his tenure and performance.
Sean’s contract runs through 2019. He is set to count a little over $10 million against next season’s cap. The Cowboys can save $7 million if he’s released.
A couple of months ago, I discussed why the Cowboys may not want to restructure Lee’s contract to create cap space. Not only is Sean getting older, but his injury issues were back last season with five missed games.
Dallas didn’t restructure, leaving themselves the leverage to handle Lee’s contract next season in whatever way is best for the organization.
A year ago, I floated the idea that Dez Bryant’s wasn’t restructured for the same reason. Many scoffed at the notion that Bryant could be released, but we saw what happened.
From a purely financial standpoint, cutting Lee would be even easier than Dez. He would create $7 million in cap space with only a $3 million dead money penalty, whereas as Bryant’s release was $8 million saved but another $8 million in dead money.
Unlike Bryant, though, Sean Lee is still performing as one of the top players at his position. He’s still justifying his salary, provided his health allows him to stay on the field.
After missing all of 2014 with a knee injury, Sean returned with consistency over the next two years. He’s been one the elite linebackers in the NFL, but last year was a setback.
A few weeks ago, Dallas spent their first-round pick on Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. While there was a present need for more LB talent, it also speaks to the Cowboys preparing for a future without Sean Lee.
Ideally, Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith will be the team’s key LB duo for years to come. While Jaylon may move to the SAM role in 2018, his ball skills are suited for the WILL role that Sean Lee plays now.
In the modern era, NFL teams often have just two linebackers on the field with nickel formations. Those will likely be Lee and Smith for most of 2018, but Vander Esch should come into the rotations at times.
If the young guys have strong seasons, it will give the Cowboys even more freedom to consider letting Sean Lee go next year. But before he can become a cap casualty, Lee will get a chance to show whether or not he’s actually a liability.
It’s entirely possible, if not probable, that Lee will still be the best LB on the team this season and one of the best in the league. That would give him security that Dez Bryant and Orlando Scandrick didn’t have this offseason.
If Dallas want to stick with Sean Lee in 2019, they should be able to find the cap space to do it. They will have $24 million in dead money coming off the books, mostly from Tony Romo and Dez Bryant’s contracts but a few others as well.
So really, Lee’s future comes down to what he does on the field this season. If he’s still Sean Lee, All-Pro linebacker, then he should still be a Cowboy going forward. But if age or injuries bring him down, it could easily be his last ride in Dallas.
Not that Sean needed extra motivation. One of his most endearing qualities is how he treats every game and every play like the Super Bowl is in the line.
But Lee will undoubtedly feel the pressure. He’ll look around at a changed locker room, the elder statesman, and know what it could mean for his future.
Nobody can predict that future, but like with Dez Bryant last year, some of the warning signs are showing. As such, 2018 could be Sean Lee’s last season as a Dallas Cowboy.