With the NFL Draft and free agency having come and gone, we’ll break down all sorts of fantasy-relevant questions entering the 2018 season. Up next is a look at the Dallas Cowboys’ exceptionally talented but perennially injured stud linebacker.
Sean Lee missed 31 of a potential 48 games from 2012 to 2014 with various injuries, but since then he’s missed “just” eight games.
Lee Is One of the NFL’s Best Linebackers When Healthy
When healthy, it’s tough to call Lee anything but one of the NFL’s best linebackers. Only Denzel Perryman has averaged more tackles per snaps per tackle among 83 linebackers with to play at least 1,000 snaps since 2015, per Pro Football Focus.
Lee regularly moves a step ahead of the rest of the defense, and he’s a handful for any running back to deal with behind the line of scrimmage.
The Cowboys have allowed just one running back to surpass 100 yards during Lee’s last 26 active games (3.8%) compared to two backs in six games without Lee (33%). He’s racked up double-digit tackles in seven games since 2015 and is truly the heart and soul of the team’s otherwise perennially average defense.
In addition to consistent excellence against the run, Lee has contributed 13 interceptions and 25 pass deflections since entering the league. He’s also surprisingly agile with the ball in his hands.
The Defense Falls Apart Without Lee
Lee has missed a total of 42 games since entering the league in 2010. The Cowboys have gone 45-41 while allowing an average of 22.8 points per game with Lee compared to 23-19 and 24.3, respectively, without him. Those differentials aren’t as large as some of the league’s other great linebackers (looking at you, Luke Kuechly), but Lee’s career splits are at least somewhat misleading when you consider that he missed the team’s entire 12-4 campaign in 2014, which featured career-best versions of Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, and Dez Bryant.
The Cowboys have failed to put up much of a fight without Lee available over the past three seasons, and there’s a stark contrast in their splits in their 38 games with him versus their 10 games without him:
- Win/Loss: 25-13 vs. 1-9
- Points per game allowed: 19.5 vs. 27.3
- Total yards per game allowed: 324.8 vs. 381.9
- Percentage of games allowing 100-plus rushing yards: 40% vs. 70%
- Percentage of games allowing 30-plus points: 16% vs. 40%
(Note: Lee has only missed eight full games since 2015, but played under 15 total snaps in two additional games in which he was injured.)
The Cowboys’ nine losses without Lee have come by an average of 12.7 points. Their run and pass defense alike have wilted as they’ve allowed an additional 27.9 passing yards and 29.2 rushing yards per game since 2015 with Lee sidelined.
Allowing an average of 27.3 points per game would have ranked the Cowboys among the league’s bottom-five scoring defenses in each of the past three seasons. The Cowboys don’t just struggle in the front seven against the run game when Lee is out; they essentially fall apart as an entire team. Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends alike should be ruthlessly targeted if facing a Lee-less Cowboys defense.
The Cowboys May Still Not Be Equipped to Handle Lee’s Absence
On the surface, it’s easy to craft a positive narrative for the Cowboys’ current front seven.
- Third-year linebacker Jaylon Smith no longer needs a brace to support his surgically-repaired knee.
- The Cowboys selected Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft to replace departed starter Anthony Hitchens.
- DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Taco Charlton, and (pending reinstatement) Randy Gregory give the Cowboys their deepest group of pass rushers in years.
Add in a youthful group of cornerbacks that are expected to take a step forward under the tutelage of former Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard, and it’s not impossible to picture the Cowboys emerging as an above-average defense.
Still, their lack of depth behind Lee remains a cause for concern. The Chiefs thought enough of Hitchens to hand him the league’s third-most expensive contract among all inside linebackers, and it’s probably not realistic to expect the 21-year old Vander Esch (who is already questionable for minicamp with an ankle injury) to immediately replace that production. Smith finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ seventh-worst linebacker against the run among 91 eligible players.
The Cowboys have gotten younger in the secondary and on the defensive line over the years, but remain fairly unproven across the board aside from Lee.
Their performance in recent seasons suggests their offseason moves won’t be enough to overcome the absence of their All-Pro captain at linebacker.
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Pictured above: Sean Lee
Photo credit: Matthew Emmons – USA TODAY Sports