Can Cowboys LB Sean Lee become a top-50 player next season?
Despite failing to complete a full season in his five years as a pro, Sean Lee still ranked No. 61 overall among Sam Monson’s 101 best players entering the 2016 season. That’s simultaneously a testament to his quality and an indictment of his ability to stay healthy. Lee was always a risky selection coming off a pair of busted ACLs at Penn State, but he has also missed games due to concussion, wrist, and toe injuries. Playing hurt constantly can’t be easy, but it hasn’t stopped Lee from becoming one of the league’s best linebackers.
Although he possesses the versatility to line up at any linebacker spot, the former Nittany Lion has the ideal skill-set for the weak-side position. His combination of instincts, coverage skills, and reliability as a tackler make him perfect for the role. Lee has the ability to shed blocks, but is at his best when kept clean of lineman. He’s constantly active around the line of scrimmage, ranking fifth among his positional peers in 2015 with a run-stop percentage of 9.8 (33 stops). Reliability as a tackler is also a key asset for any linebacker. Lee missed only 13 of 128 tackle attempts a year ago—and only 35 of 422 over his career—highlighting his strength in that department. In fact, only 12 linebackers more consistently wrapped up ball carriers last season. Lee’s run defense isn’t particularly flashy, but it is effective; his 82.0 run-defense grade ranked 22nd among LBs in 2015.
Few linebackers are capable of covering backs in man-coverage and narrowing passing lanes in zone. Lee is one of the few. His ability to influence the passing game is bettered by only All-Pro Luke Kuechly. Again, the numbers are impressive; Lee allowed only 0.88 yards per cover snap in 2015, good for fifth-best at the position. He also recorded a pick and three pass deflections (only one touchdown allowed). Only Kuechly bettered his 94.7 coverage grade. Over the course of PFF’s nine years, just nine players have achieved a better coverage grade.
Steady improvement since his rookie season also suggests Lee’s best is yet to come. In each of his seasons in which he played at least 25 percent of snaps, the Cowboys’ middle linebacker has finished 24th, 12th, ninth, and seventh, respectively, among linebackers in overall grade. Assuming he’s able to manage a quarter of reps again next season, it’s reasonable to suggest he’ll take another step forward.
The Cowboys’ defense could be better next year with the likes of Cedric Thornton up front and Jaylon Smith at the second level. Ultimately, though, Lee is likely to be the standout. From a team perspective, Dallas Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli will be desperate to have his cornerstone throughout the year. From an individual perspective, clearly it’s not talent preventing Lee from cracking the top-50 in Monson’s 101, but dependability.