IRVING, Texas – Take a second to think about the most valuable player on the Cowboys defense right now.
DeMarcus Ware's still putting up gaudy numbers, Anthony Spencer's coming off the best year of his career and Brandon Carr picked up his play over the second half of last season.
It wouldn't necessarily be wrong to tab any of those players, but it also wouldn't be wrong to name Sean Lee, which demonstrates just how much the 2010 second-round pick has done in his short tenure with the team.
Even more, it shows why now – even after the unquestioned defensive leader missed most of last season – is the time to lock him up before it's too late.
Lee's already the player other linebackers turn to when they have a question. He's the one relaying the defensive calls to the rest of the group, and he's usually the one making the play when a ball-carrier receives the handoff.
He's the linebacker other linebackers strive to become. Bruce Carter, who took over as the defensive signal caller when Lee went down, continued to ask Lee for advice when the Penn State product was out. He broke down film with Lee, who served as a mentor and coach after he knew his season was over.
"I just wanted to know what he thought about how I played and this and that. He thought I played well," Carter said after his first game as the primary defensive communicator. "I mean, anytime he says something like that, it's pretty good."
It'd be tough to find any team in the NFL that wouldn't welcome a player of Lee's caliber; a player capable of meshing any unit together. His value in the locker room rivals that of his efficacy on the field.
Lee led all Cowboys players in tackles in 2011, breaking the 100-combined tackle mark in his first season as a full-time starter. No other Dallas defender even reached 80 combined tackles.
Last year, he finished as the team's fourth-leading tackler, despite playing in 10 fewer games than the majority of the group. At no point in 2012 did more questions arise about the defense and who would signal the calls than after Lee went down.
He was the infallible leader. He was the glue that put everything in place. He was even the team's interceptions leader before he went down.
And soon, his contract will be up. Extending Lee should be priority No. 1 for the front office, as it decides how to handle the money its saved by not attempting to lure the most attractive names in free agency.
Yes, Lee's injury issues are a concern, and the Cowboys have been tied up in a medley of contracts they probably would take back now.
But the Cowboys can also use Lee's injury history to their advantage. He was on pace for 154.6 combined tackles before his season ended with a freak toe injury. That's production the team can't find elsewhere. The Cowboys should now be able to get him for less than they would have had he finished his stellar start to the season.
Lee's only getting better every year he's on the field, and the longer they wait to lock up their defensive leader, the pricier he'll get. Keep the injury history in mind, but also consider what this defense would look like without him.
Head coach Jason Garrett described Lee as the quarterback of the defense last season. After locking up their actual quarterback, they'd be wise to follow suit with their defensive signal caller.
Read David Helman's counterpoint - "Let Lee Shine Before Re-Signing In 2013"