FRISCO, Texas — When Sean Lee walked out of the Los Angeles Coliseum after the Dallas Cowboys’ divisional-round loss to the Los Angeles Rams a month ago, the linebacker said he had a decision to make regarding his future.
He wanted to get away for a little bit, talk to his family and think things through.
“Obviously the health is the major issue,” Lee said outside the locker room. “Trying to stay healthy is something I need to do if I want to keep playing.”
After that time away, the feeling from those close to Lee is that he wants to continue to keep playing. He wants to continue to play for the Cowboys, if they’ll have him, but would be open to playing elsewhere if there is no opportunity in Dallas.
He turns 33 in July and played in seven games last season because of a recurring hamstring issue that has limited his effectiveness the past two seasons.
Vander Esch led the Cowboys in tackles with 176, the most in team history by a rookie, according to the Cowboys coaches’ tally. He was added to the Pro Bowl, becoming the Cowboys’ first rookie defender to play in the all-star game since 1981. Smith finished second on the team with 150 tackles and had four sacks and 13 quarterback pressures. He also had five tackles for loss, four pass deflections, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Smith and Vander Esch credited Lee for their development.
“You take pride in a guy who cares so much about football, prepares every week the way he does, that’s a guy you want to give everything to. Jaylon’s the same way,” Lee said late in the regular season about Vander Esch and Smith. “You come into meetings and you see young guys beginning their career and you want to do everything to help them because you see yourself in them.”
The Cowboys will now have to determine if Lee’s presence, leadership and work ethic are valuable for 2019. If money were no object, the answer would be: without a doubt. But they will have to figure out the economics, because everything has a price in a salary-cap league.
Though it is possible to keep Lee’s contract as is, it’s not really a viable option. He is set to count $10 million against the cap with a $7 million base salary. If he returns, it would not be in a full-time role with the way Smith and Vander Esch played in 2018. Making that kind of commitment to a player with Lee’s injury history would not be prudent.
The Cowboys would save Lee’s $7 million base salary and have $3.075 million in dead money against the cap as the result of the remaining prorated deal. That’s a nice bit of change to have if the Cowboys want to be big-time players in free agency, which executive vice president Stephen Jones has already said is not in the plans.
The Cowboys have plenty of cap room to re-sign their key players, such as DeMarcus Lawrence and Cole Beasley, and give long-term deals to Amari Cooper, Dak Prescott, Byron Jones and Ezekiel Elliott before they can hit the market in either 2020 or 2021. But an added $7 million wouldn’t hurt.
The Cowboys know Smith and Vander Esch are the future. Smith turns 24 in June. Vander Esch turned 23 last week. There are ways to keep Lee at a reduced salary while also allowing him the opportunity to compete for a role with Smith and Vander Esch.
As he worked back into the defense late in the season, the plan was to rotate the three linebackers, but circumstances did not allow that to happen. Having Lee as an insurance policy should something happen to Smith or Vander Esch during the season would help.
The Cowboys have Joe Thomas entering the final year of his deal, but starting strongside linebacker Damien Wilson is set to become a free agent. He could find a bigger role elsewhere. Every team has a need for linebacker depth and, at the right price, Lee would be the right fit.
The Cowboys can reduce Lee’s salary, which would create a cap savings, and then allow him the chance to earn back some of the money based on playing-time incentives.
When Lee signed his seven-year extension in 2013, his injury history played a role. He was coming off a season in which he had played six games because of a toe injury. He agreed to deal that paid him more if he played more. He would undoubtedly be open to a similar concept in the final year of the contract.
In the first three games of the season, Lee had 25 tackles. He had a half-sack and a tackle for loss, two quarterback pressures and a pass deflection. He still got the job done.
Then the injuries hit, and Smith and Vander Esch proved worthy to be on the field a lot. Lee, however, never let the frustration he felt from the injury affect his approach or the team in 2018.
The benefit of his return in 2019 outweighs the concern, if the price is right.
“That’s just the guy he is, man,” safety Jeff Heath said. “He’s a very selfless leader. He’s [about] what’s in the best interest of the team. As difficult as that can be sometimes, [Lee] handled it as good as you can handle it. He was still just as engaged, just as locked in as he always is, practiced just as hard. Really, all the stuff you come to expect from Sean.”