When defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli readily acknowledged that his unit is playing at a higher level in 2018 than any other time since he came to the Cowboys in 2013, the irony of achieving that status without linebacker Sean Lee was quickly noted by a so-called intrepid reporter.
But Marinelli didn’t blink.
While many have called for the Cowboys and league’s fifth-ranked defense to move on from the injury-prone Lee because of the development of middle linebacker Jaylon Smith and weakside linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, Marinelli said their success and that of the defense is “because of” Lee.
“He’s always had his hand in this whole thing,” Marinelli said when asked about the irony of the unit playing it’s best without Lee. “He is there every day. We have two talented, high achieving linebackers in 54 (Smith) and 55 (Vander Esch). And they learn from Sean. When we get him back it’s a special deal.”
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And make no mistake about it, when Lee comes back, he will return to the starting lineup at weakside linebacker, just like owner Jerry Jones said, but in a rotation with other two, Marinelli said.
Lee has missed the last four games with a hamstring injury, seven total this season, and is not expected to return for Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles. But he is getting closer.
“We put Sean in and go,” Marinelli said. ”He is not going to be able to be able to play a full load. That really helps us. We can bring him on without putting 50 snaps on the guy. That is something you don’t want to do.”
Marinelli said it’s not a problem or dilemma that keeps him up at night because there is no one better in the NFL than a healthy Lee at what he does.
“It’s not a problem, first of all,” Marinelli said. “It’s good. His leadership and everything he brings. When he is healthy he is the best linebacker in the league, when he is healthy. And he is rubbing off on the two young guys.”
More importantly, the lesson of character and attitude the entire team is learning from Lee is special, considering the inevitable coming down the road in the near future.
There is no question Vander Esch, the team’s 2018 first-round pick, will replace the aging and injury prone Lee in the starting lineup, possibly as soon as the offseason, if not before the end of this season.
Lee has a $7 million base salary for 2019 and is set to count $10.075 million against the cap in what will be his last year under contract. It would cost the Cowboys just $3.075 million to walk away from Lee following 2018, saving $7 million that could be used to pay a host of other players in their prime in line for contract extensions.
It’s not hard to do the math and connect the dots here.
Lee, 32, is the oldest position player on the team. He has missed 12 games and counting the past two seasons with hamstring injuries and never played a full 16-game season in career.
These things tend to not get better.
Lee, however, has not let what might happen in the future stop him from doing everything he can to help the Cowboys even if that meant grooming guys to take his job.
“Make sure you are taking a good vision of this guy because you don’t see guys like this in the NFL anymore,” Marinelli said. “You don’t see a man like that. He is everything you want in this league. We all have to appreciate that.”