FRISCO – Jaylon Smith is the middle linebacker with a Pro Bowl future. Leighton Vander Esch is the weakside linebacker with a Pro Bowl honor already on his resume from last year’s rookie season.
Sean Lee will nevertheless be listed as a “starter” because when the Dallas Cowboys depth chart is released this week as part of Tuesday’s start to OTAs, Lee will be atop the list as the strong side linebacker.
“That’s a dream come true to play with two young guys who love football,” Lee said of lining up alongside Vander Esch and Smith. “All-Pro players who played unbelievable last year and really willed our team from a tough record early in the season, to snap back and get into the playoffs is really because of those guys, how well they played and the whole group, the whole defense.”
The “dream come true” part is true. That is an accurate portrayal of how Lee talks in general and about how he feels, specifically, about the two heirs to his Dallas linebacking throne. But some of the other storylines here demand clarity. For instance:
*While Lee has never technically played strong side linebacker, the three linebacking positions are more interchangeable than ever. In other words, it won’t be much of an issue for him to “learn” it, even though he’s talked about that multiple times.
Said Lee: “As the game has changed, the standup linebacker positions can be similar at times.”
*Vander Esch and Smith are not technically “All-Pro players.” Lee is actually the one with those sort of credentials. But he is acknowledging, in his return to the team at a reduced salary, their ascent, and is truly excited about it.
*As I wrote a month ago when I first talked to Lee about this, an NFL “strong side linebacker” is a “starter” in name only. Dallas plays its base defense only 25 percent during a given game, and only half the time in 2018 did the SAM actually “start” the game. So, a SAM is no more a “starter” than a fullback or a second tight end is.
Ah, but there is something that coaches are now suggesting to me, and something that Lee himself hints at, that can make him more that just the third wheel here, in addition to someone who spells Vander Esch and Smith.
What if he stays healthy enough, at age 32, to put behind him the fact that he missed nine games last season and 51 in his career to be more than just a “base defense” linebacker? What if he is part of “the best 11” in a variety of other situations? What if there are times, even against an opponent’s multiple-receiver sets, when Sean Lee stays on the field in place of, say, nickel corner Anthony Brown, to become a hybrid defender regardless of the traditional labels like “SAM”? What if Jaylon stays on the field as a pass-rusher? What if Lee is best-suited, in certain situations, to cover a tight end or a running back while also being able to defend the run?
“There will be times,” Sean Lee said, “when I’ll be in similar positions (to what) I’ve been in.”
In other words, what he’s hinting at, is that the 2019 plan for him might transcend all of these labels, and simply boil back down to him being “Sean Lee, Football Player.”