In­jured Lee gets praise for groom­ing rookie

Pos­si­bly near twi­light as Cow­boy, cap­tain still takes pos­i­tive role

The Dallas Morning News - - Sports Day - Twit­ter: @Dm­n_­ge­orge

FRISCO — As Sean Lee nears his re­turn to the field, the Cow­boys inch closer to an im­por­tant de­ci­sion they’ll have to make on their vet­eran line­backer’s fu­ture.

In yet an­other sea­son of in­juries for Lee the Cow­boys have fi­nally found a way to not only sur­vive on de­fense with­out their Pro Bowl cap­tain but also thrive.

The emer­gence of rookie

first-rounder Leighton Van­der Esch at weak­side line­backer along with the con­tin­ued im­prove­ment of mid­dle line­backer Jay­lon Smith has painted a pic­ture of what life might look like with­out Lee.

Lee will miss his fifth con­sec­u­tive game be­cause of a strained left ham­string Sun­day when the Cow­boys play Philadel­phia. He didn’t prac­tice all week but re­mains hope­ful he can re­turn soon to help Dal­las close out De­cem­ber.

Last year, the de­fense crum­bled as the Cow­boys went 1-4 with­out Lee. This year, the de­fense has surged and the Cow­boys are 6-1 with­out him.

De­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Rod Marinelli said this week that he still be­lieves Lee is the best line­backer in the NFL when he’s healthy. The prob­lem for Lee has been that abil­ity means noth­ing with­out avail­abil­ity. He’s never played all 16 games in his eight sea­sons in the league, and Sun­day will mark the 13th game he’s missed over the last two years.

Lee, who wasn’t avail­able

for com­ment this week in the locker room, has called his missed time “un­ac­cept­able.”

“I have to stay healthy,” Lee said last week. “That’s the thing, I can’t be in and out. I have to be able to put games to­gether, stay on the foot­ball field, put prac­tices to­gether week in and week out. That’s my goal now. I know if I can do that I can make plays and help this team win.”

At 32, Lee is the old­est starter on the team. He’ll be in the last year of his con­tract next sea­son. The Cow­boys will owe Lee a base salary of $7 mil­lion next sea­son, and he’ll carry a cap hit of $10.075 mil­lion.

If the Cow­boys re­lease Lee in the off­sea­son they would do so with­out much harm to their bot­tom line. They could save $7 mil­lion in cap space, with Lee count­ing only $3.075 mil­lion in dead space.

With the Cow­boys po­si­tion­ing them­selves in the com­ing months to dish out mil­lions in long-term con­tract ex­ten­sions for quar­ter­back Dak Prescott, de­fen­sive end De­mar­cus Lawrence, run­ning back Ezekiel El­liott, cor­ner­back By­ron Jones and re­ceiver Amari Cooper, they’ll be look­ing for ways to save money with their other ros­ter de­ci­sions.

The Cow­boys’ re­spect for Lee has grown over the last two months be­cause of the way he’s taken Van­der Esch un­der his wing.

Marinelli said that de­spite Lee not hav­ing played in a game since Nov. 5 he’s re­mained heav­ily in­volved in game prepa­ra­tion. He’s of­ten found Lee late at night por­ing over game film of the com­ing op­po­nent, metic­u­lously tak­ing notes that he re­lays the next day to Van­der Esch and Smith.

“He stays up here late at night, and he takes notes for those guys, ‘Hey, watch this. Look at this,’” Marinelli said. “He’ll talk to them, ‘You have to look at this.’ It’s pretty spe­cial.”

The irony of it all is that Lee is pour­ing ev­ery­thing he has into pre­par­ing a player to ex­cel on the field who could be the rea­son the Cow­boys cut ties with him.

Van­der Esch said that makes him re­spect Lee even more, know­ing that he doesn’t have to do all that he is to help him fill his po­si­tion.

“I feel like I’ve known him for­ever al­ready,” Van­der Esch said. “I met him on my [pre­draft] visit here and he was run­ning around on the field, no­body was here, no­body was in the fa­cil­ity be­sides him and Ja­son Wit­ten. Sean was out there on the field run­ning around do­ing drills and stuff al­ready and I’m like, ‘Whoa!’ He came in and talked to me about 10 or 15 min­utes and I was like, ‘I re­ally want to be here and play for the Cow­boys’ and play with a guy like him.”

Van­der Esch has played at a Pro Bowl level with Lee out. He leads the Cow­boys with 128 tack­les (ac­cord­ing to the coaches’ film) and is tied for the team lead with two in­ter­cep­tions.

Cow­boys owner Jerry Jones said re­cently that Lee will re­claim his start­ing job when he re­turns. Marinelli said the Cow­boys will limit Lee’s snaps and the three lineback­ers will all play a lot.

The Cow­boys did ev­ery­thing they could to keep Lee healthy. He rarely even prac­ticed in train­ing camp, and when the sea­son started they re­duced his snaps by play­ing him in a ro­ta­tion with Van­der Esch and Smith.

Lee has al­ready lost money be­cause of his in­juries. He didn’t re­ceive a $2 mil­lion es­ca­la­tor in his con­tract this year be­cause he didn’t play 80 per­cent of the Cow­boys’ de­fen­sive snaps last sea­son. He also won’t get that same $2 mil­lion bonus in 2019 for the same rea­son.

The Cow­boys also per­haps tipped their hand to what they might do with Lee this spring by not re­struc­tur­ing his con­tract this past off­sea­son after do­ing so in 2017. In re­cent sea­sons, the Cow­boys haven’t re­struc­tured con­tracts of vet­eran play­ers they’ve re­leased the fol­low­ing years in an ef­fort not to in­crease dead money on the salary cap.

“Make sure you’re tak­ing a good vi­sion of this guy be­cause you don’t see guys like that in the NFL any more, like this guy,” Marinelli said this week of Lee. “You don’t see a man like that. He’s ev­ery­thing you want in this league. And we all have to ap­pre­ci­ate that.”

Bge­[email protected]­las­news.com

BRAN­DON GE­ORGE

SEAN LEE

Vernon Bryant/staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Sean Lee talks with rookie line­backer Leighton Van­der Esch on the side­lines dur­ing the Cow­boys’ game vs. Hous­ton. While side­lined with an in­jury, Lee has con­tin­ued study­ing film and help­ing Van­der Esch pre­pare for games.

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