The roster turnover is already underway. Free agency has now begun and the 2017 NFL Draft isn’t far away. Over the next few weeks, the Cowboys will lose and replace a sizable portion of their roster.
For every new face, however, there are dozens of familiar ones who will return to begin a new campaign. From established veterans to second-year players, the vast majority of the Cowboys’ 2017 team is already on the roster. In the coming weeks, the staff of DallasCowboys.com will preview those players, analyzing where they’ve been and where they’re going.
Today we’ll continue the series with linebacker Sean Lee.
What’s Been Good: It’s crazy to think how much the narrative has flipped on Sean Lee’s career these past two years. You can chalk it up to a position switch, as Lee moved to the weak side in 2015, or you can simply chalk it up to better luck.
Regardless, the injuries that plagued Lee from 2010-2014 are almost an afterthought these days. The seven-year veteran had the healthiest, most productive season of his career en route to a playoff appearance this year – the first playoff appearance of his career. Lee played in 16 of 17 games, and he only sat out of the season finale because it was a game with zero playoff implications. Though the fact Lee was at the ready, with his helmet on, all day long in that Week 17 game – despite knowing he wouldn’t be going in – tells you everything you need to know about him.
Lee was the most consistent member of a surprisingly good Dallas defense. He’s officially credited by the league with 145 tackles for the year, though the Cowboys coaching staff credited him with 174 stops to go along with 12 tackles for loss.
For his efforts, Lee was added to the Pro Bowl roster after initially being snubbed. More importantly than that, he was named a first-team All-Pro, as he finally seems to be earning the recognition that eluded him in the early portion of his career.
Throughout the early stages of his career, Lee seemed to be snake bitten by unfortunate circumstances. Remember, he missed the entire 2014 playoff campaign with a torn ACL. Coming off his second-straight Pro Bowl season, though, everything finally seems to be going his way.
What’s Been Bad: This is nitpicking, but the Cowboys would love to get some more game-changing plays from their star linebacker. During his first four seasons in the league, Lee nabbed 11 total interceptions. That’s an absurd number for a linebacker, and it was actually the best tally in the NFL by a linebacker during that span. He managed an impressive four interceptions in just 11 games in 2013, and he returned one of them for a touchdown.
Since he moved to the weak side, that hasn’t been a big part of his game. Lee made an amazing end zone interception of Sam Bradford in a Week 2 win against Philadelphia back in 2015, and he hasn’t had one since.
It’s hard to single Lee out for this. The Cowboys’ entire defense hasn’t been great at forcing turnovers these last two seasons. Still, it’d be nice to see him discover his old form – and no one probably agrees more with that assessment than Lee himself.
2016 Highlight: Anyone who has watched a Cowboys game these last six years should be familiar with the sight of Lee tackling everything in front of him.
But he outdid himself in the Dec. 11 loss to the New York Giants. According to the coaches’ tape, Lee set a new franchise record for tackles in a game, as he posted 22 stops in the divisional matchup. Of those 22, a whopping 17 were solo tackles – only five were assisted. He was essentially a one-man wrecking crew who limited New York to just 260 total yards, and a yards per carry average of just 2.8.
It’s also worth mentioning Lee’s game saving play in the Oct. 30 overtime win against Philadelphia. The Eagles were holding a 23-16 lead with 7:17 to play in regulation, and Carson Wentz was facing a 3rd-and-8 at the Dallas 30-yard line. A Philadelphia field goal to push the lead to 26-16 seemed to be a likely outcome.
Instead, Wentz scrambled and looked for Darren Sproles on a swing pass deep in the Philadelphia backfield. Lee sniffed it out from the get-go and snuffed out Sproles before he could get going – a six-yard loss. The play pushed the Eagles out of field goal range and forced them to punt. The Cowboys tied the game on their next possession.
What’s Next: Lee is without question the best player on the Dallas defense, not to mention one of the best linebackers in the NFL. His biggest problem is that he hasn’t had much of a supporting cast.
It’s still early, but that might not change much in 2017. The Cowboys have lost four defensive starters to free agency, and all their picks come at the back end of each round in this year’s NFL draft. Ideally, Jaylon Smith will be able to return from injury and provide Lee with a highly-talented partner at linebacker – but he remains an unknown commodity.
If the Dallas defense is going to play at a high level in 2017, it’s going to need Lee to be healthy and productive for a third-straight year.