Since 2010 the Dallas Cowboys have done a better job of finding talent. As a core of Tony Romo, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware, Miles Austin, Jason Hatcher, Anthony Spencer and Doug Free inch closer to the end of their careers, the Cowboys need a group of young players heading into their primes to take ownership of the team. Cowboys reporters Calvin Watkins and Todd Archer analyze those players from the class of 2010 on.
IRVING, Texas -- The Cowboys believe Sean Lee is one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL and paid him like one last summer when he signed a six-year, $42 million extension.
The deal could be worth as much as $51 million provided Lee is healthy.
Health is the only question mark for Lee. He has not played a full season since the Cowboys took him in the second round of the 2010 draft. He missed five games in 2013 because of hamstring and neck injuries. The sprained ligament in his neck requires rest, not surgery, which is the good news.
Despite missing five games, Lee finished second on the defense with 123 tackles. His four interceptions led the Cowboys, which is also a sign of how poorly the secondary played. He also had six pass deflections, three quarterback pressures and a fumble recovery.
He is the quarterback of the defense. He is also the brains and the heart; the defensive version of Witten in a way. Lee had a run of seven straight games with double-digit tackles, including a season-high 21 against the San Diego Chargers. One of his four interceptions was good for a 52-yard return for a touchdown. He finished with 174 return yards on his picks.
Lee has a nose for the ball. Unfortunately injuries have a nose for him. In order for Lee to be considered one of the best linebackers in football, he has to play a full season. Until then, the talk is only about his potential.
If he can play in 80 percent of the snaps in 2014, he will earn an extra $1.5 million on his 2015 base salary that is already guaranteed. From 2016 to 2019, he can earn an extra $7.5 million toward his base salaries with 80 percent playing time in the previous years.
There is incentive for Lee to stay healthy. The Cowboys will gladly pay him, but they know they need him on the field if the defense is ever to become a playoff-level unit.