The Dallas Cowboys have had one constant in their linebacker room since 2010, veteran Sean Lee. His best stretch in the NFL was the 2015 and 2016 seasons when he made his only two Pro Bowl teams and received his lone All-Pro selection. Over the next two seasons, Lee would play in only 18 games, which made drafting Leighton Vander Esch in 2018 so important.
In 2019, however, Vander Esch went down with a neck injury that forced him to miss seven games. Fortunately for the Cowboys, they had the best insurance policy at linebacker in the NFL with Lee. He played a full 16 games for the first time in his career and racked up 86 tackles (55 solo), four pass breakups, a sack, and an interception. You simply don’t get that kind of production normally from your third option at linebacker.
Back in March, Lee signed a one-year, 4.5 million dollar deal with two million in guarantees. The hope now is that Lee can have back to back 16-game seasons for the first time in his career and give the Cowboys the best trio of linebackers in the NFL.
The roles for Smith and Vander Esch will be a little different in 2020 than they were last season. Smith looks to be switching to weakside linebacker and will be used in a designated pass rusher role in Mike Nolan’s hybrid scheme with multiple looks upfront. Vander Esch will switch to the middle linebacker spot, which shows the Cowboys don’t have any concerns about his neck going forward. With Smith being utilized in more ways and Vander Esch playing in the middle the availability of Lee will be very important in case an unforeseen injury occurs.
Lee’s specific role will be determined by his own availability and others. If Vander Esch has a setback then Lee can slide right into his role at middle linebacker, which he has plenty of experience playing. Also, if Smith were to get injured Lee can play outside linebacker as well.
That’s the great thing about having a veteran like Lee behind Smith and Vander Esch. There aren’t too many scenarios where you’ll find a team with a third option at linebacker that can get them almost 90 tackles as Lee did for the Cowboys in 2019.
His experience and versatility will be paramount this season.