(Football season is finally approaching. After a long offseason, the Cowboys are set to depart for training camp on July 25. During this final month before they begin practice in Oxnard, Calif., the staff of DallasCowboys.com is going to preview the 20 biggest questions facing the Cowboys heading into 2019.)
FRISCO, Texas – Sean Lee’s back for a 10th season with the Cowboys – and likely in a different role than we’ve seen from the veteran linebacker in the past.
Plagued by hamstring injuries for two straight seasons, the 32-year-old Lee contemplated his football future after the team’s divisional-round playoff loss to the Rams. But he and the Cowboys agreed to a restructured contract for 2019, the final year of his current deal.
Now Lee is preparing for new responsibilities at the strong-side (SAM) linebacker spot alongside breakout linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, who stepped up last year while Lee missed nine games due to injury.
Will the position switch help Lee in Year 10? That’s the next installment in our 20 Questions series.
Nick Eatman: I don’t know if it helps Lee as much as it’ll help the entire position. Lee probably won’t play as much as he is used to, but having him out there should give the defense flexibility to play more of a 4-3 scheme. Plus, it might lighten the load somewhat for Smith and Vander Esch. The interesting part to me will be the nickel and dime packages to find out how they line up. That will be a spot where Lee could be used the most, considering his coverage skills and instincts are typically top-notch. If Lee is healthy, his role will be different than the past but this could be a “less is more” situation across the board.
Bryan Broaddus: If Lee is excited about the move, then we all should be excited as well. How can you not like a scheme where three of your best tacklers are on the field at the same time? I like the move for Lee as well as the team. Lee has added some body armor without sacrificing any of his speed, which is an area that you always worry about when a player adds more weight to account for a position switch. I’ve noticed that Lee took more snaps in these OTAs and minicamp practices. Lee likely went to the staff and requested it in order to not only work himself in shape but get acclimated to the requirements of the position.
David Helman: I mean, it has to, doesn’t it? To this point in a nine-year career, Lee’s main issue has always been durability. The coaches can talk all they want about using base personnel more often because of Lee’s ability, but this is still the NFL in 2019. The Cowboys are going to have to lean on nickel defense, just like everyone else, and I’m guessing that will push Lee’s snap count down below 50 percent. It might be strange for him to adjust to a smaller role, but if he can give this defense 300 snaps at 100 percent, they’ll be better for it.
Rob Phillips: I believe Lee can play any linebacker spot, even as he nears his mid-30s. The Cowboys do, too. Playing the strong side might seem like a philosophical departure from the past. Remember, the Cowboys moved Lee to the weak side a few years ago to cover him up from blockers and theoretically help his durability. But as Dave said, perhaps Lee won’t be asked to play 50-60 snaps a game anymore. Last year’s starting SAM linebacker, Damien Wilson, played less than 30 percent of the defense’s total snaps. If that helps him play at his optimum for a full 16 games, so much the better. I know this: Lee was the best linebacker on the field in that Rams loss, and his presence (even in a smaller role) still makes this defense better.