Two Young Stars and Sean Lee’s Guidance: How Dallas’s Linebacking Duo Became the NFL’s Best

Jonathan Jones
Sports Illustrated
Two Young Stars and Sean Lee’s Guidance: How Dallas’s Linebacking Duo Became the NFL’s Best
Two Young Stars and Sean Lee’s Guidance: How Dallas’s Linebacking Duo Became the NFL’s Best

NEW YORK — Here, in front of the lockers for MetLife Stadium visitors Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, the word of the day is “deference.”

For Smith, the third-year middle linebacker, and rookie weakside linebacker Vander Esch, it’s deference to Lee’s knowledge and years with the Cowboys organization. They lean on him for film-room tips each week, and Vander Esch gladly stepped aside in Sunday’s 36-35 win over the Giants to make way for Lee’s 22 defensive snaps as he works his way back from two separate hamstring injuries.

For the 32-year-old Lee, it’s deference to the incredible play of these two young linebackers—who will likely take the mantle of best linebacking duo in the NFL heading into the 2019 season—and an understanding that this may be his final season in the only NFL home he’s known.

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The fourth-seeded Cowboys host the Seahawks Saturday night in what will be Smith and Vander Esch’s first playoff game, and possibly Lee’s last in a Cowboys uniform. And while all three men are surely aware of the latter scenario, this has been as respectful a changing of the guard as you’ll find in the NFL.

“They’re great guys and great football players. They love the game and the way they approach it week in and week out is an inspiration,” Lee says. “I had a lot of help with the older guys when I was a rookie and passed [knowledge] to me and now I’m trying to pass it to these guys.

“The margin for error is so small in this league and there are so many great players and you have to prepare a certain way. I’m trying to pass that down. Those guys already have that, though.”

When the Cowboys took Vander Esch with the 19th overall pick in the 2018 draft, they immediately put him behind Smith as the second-team middle linebacker as Lee worked as the first-team weakside backer. Lee was coming off his third straight 100-tackle season with a career-high 13 tackles for loss in just 11 games, and was entering the penultimate year of his six-year, $42 million contract extension.

Practicing at the same position allowed Smith, the former five-star linebacker from Notre Dame, and Vander Esch, the wolf hunter from Idaho, time to bond on and off the field.

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“I’ve got a chance to learn from him. See some gun choices and some types of wolves he’s hunted in his past,” Smith says. “I’ve turned him on to a lot of cultural music, a lot of how to swag on the field.”

But when Lee was sidelined with a hamstring injury in Week 4, Vander Esch moved to the weakside. Lee returned to his starting role in Week 7 but suffered a second hamstring injury a week later. Since then, the position has belonged to Vander Esch, who closed out the year with the most tackles by a Cowboys rookie since 1977.

Lee has used the time sidelined by the injuries to teach Vander Esch, who credits Lee’s football IQ for his late-game, third-down stop on a Sunday night in Philadelphia, preserving a Cowboys victory and starting a five-game winning streak.

On third-and-2 from the Dallas 30 with two minutes left, Carson Wentz threw a screen pass to running back Corey Clement on a play that NFL NextGen Stats predicted would net the Eagles 14 yards. The early recognition allowed Vander Esch to get inside of the two blocking linemen and tackle Clement for a five-yard loss that put the Eagles in a fourth-and-long situation they couldn’t convert.

“That was like full awareness knowing that the situation you were in and the type of back he is and how they utilize him in certain situations,” Vander Esch says. “Knowing all the possible plays that could come out of it, he’s definitely helped me out in that sense.”

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The crowded linebacker room is reminiscent of the 2012 Carolina Panthers. Three-time Pro Bowler Jon Beason held down the MIKE linebacker spot while former first-round pick Thomas Davis was returning from his third ACL tear. The Panthers took Luke Kuechly in the first round of that year’s draft and started him at weakside as Davis worked his way back to full health. Eventually, an injury to Beason moved Kuechly to the middle linebacker spot. Beason was traded to the Giants the next season. Kuechly and Davis went on to become the best linebacking duo in the league, a mantle they held until this season.

“Then they drafted me, so how’s all this going to fit? From Day One that was never an issue with Thomas,” Kuechly says. “It was, ‘How can I help you? What can I do?’ And so for me, this guy really wants to help me and he’s going to be this cool then I have to make sure that I’m doing my part.”

Told the story of Kuechly’s first season, Vander Esch nods quickly.

“I want to do everything I can possibly do to give back to those guys and show them that I love football, because I absolutely do, and they can trust me to do my job in every single play in every single game,” he says.

And so, when Lee needed those 22 snaps against the Giants to get back into the flow, Vander Esch obliged. But the Cowboys are now faced with a dilemma: How much does Lee play in a win-or-go home situation when the young duo has made this Dallas defense one of the NFL’s best?

Lee has played just 220 defensive snaps this season. He’s topped 40 snaps in a game just twice this year. His usage this year (21.5% of the Cowboys’ defensive plays) is the least he’s ever played, excluding the 2014 season he missed in its entirety.

Lee’s contract is up after the 2019 season, and he’s set to count $10.075 million against the cap next year. Cutting him would just cost the Cowboys $3.075 million in dead cap money, and the team could restructure his contract for the third time in three years to bring down a cap hit too large for a player seeing the field on just one-fifth of the snaps.

Smith and Vander Esch are the future of the Cowboys linebackers, and Lee surely knows that. But how quickly that future arrives is not something Lee is dwelling on.

“It’s right now. Everything that we’ve ever wanted as a team and what I’ve wanted is right in front of us,” Lee said recently. “The focus stays right there. I know there are a lot of times I’m frustrated and I want to be out there and frustrated with the injuries, but my focus has always been to help in any way I can.”

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