When the Dallas Cowboys drafted Sean Lee in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, using the 55th overall pick on him, they knew they were taking a chance. The Penn State linebacker was a great talent, no doubt. He was also an injury risk.
There was no denying his talent.
Even at a school dubbed “Linebacker U,” Sean Lee was special.
Lee was a three-year starter at Penn State, an All-Big Ten selection as a junior and a team captain as a senior. He left Penn State as the school’s fourth all-time leading tackler ahead of such luminaries as Pro Football Hall of Famer Jack Ham, College Football Hall of Famer Shane Conlan and NFL Pro Bowlers Matt Millen, LaVar Arrington and NaVorro Bowman.
But the NFL didn’t focus on his tackling ability in the draft research of Lee in 2010. The focus was on his knees. Medical staffs spent almost as much time studying Lee as scouting staffs. He was considered fragile.
But the Cowboys looked past his medical history and drafted the talent, believing they stole a first-round value in the second round when they claimed Lee with the 55th overall pick.
Lee became a starter in his second season in 2011 — but missed a game that year with a dislocated wrist, 10 more in 2012 with ligament damage in his big toe and five more in 2013 with hamstring and neck injuries.
His run of hard luck continued Tuesday when Lee suffered a knee injury in a noncontact passing drill on the very first day of the club’s organized team activities. He underwent an MRI in the evening and, according to sources, was told that he had suffered a torn left ACL and is expected to miss the season.
The injury was a flashback to his days at Penn State when he missed the entire 2008 season after tearing his right ACL in another a noncontact drill in the spring, then missed three more games in 2009 with a sprain to his left ACL. Tuesday’s injury was to his left knee.
I went back through my draft notes of 2010, and the red flags were everywhere. The talent evaluators raved about Lee’s ability but couched just about every comment with his medical history.
“I love him as a player,” one NFL GM said, “He can coach your whole defense. But he’s slight [6-2, 236], so durability is an issue. I’m not sure he can last on the inside in this league.”
“Helluva player,” said an NFL defensive coordinator, “but those knees are a concern.”
This is the wildcatter in Jerry Jones. Others see risks. He sees rewards. Others see dry holes. He says, Drill, baby, drill. Sometimes, it works out. With Sean Lee, it has not.
As Lee prepares to sit out the 2014 NFL season with yet another devastating injury, the Cowboys and their fans are left imagining what might have been.
In four years, Lee has started 32 games, which amounts to two full seasons. He has recorded 193 tackles, 11 interceptions, forced two fumbles, and recovered two fumbles. In other words, when he is playing, he is brilliant. He has a nose for the football. In fact, he leads all NFL linebackers in interceptions during his time in the league, despite missing so many games.
Sean Lee is an elite talent. He should be a perennial pro bowler, an All-Pro. He should be working on a potential Hall of Fame career.
Instead, he is nursing another injury. He is being sliced by the surgeon’s knife again. He is missing an entire season of a what-if career.
And that’s sad.
For him, especially. But also for the Cowboys, who placed so much hope and faith in his on-field leadership and talent when they made the tough decision to let DeMarcus Ware walk.
Sad for the fans, too. An already putrid defense–the worst in franchise history–is now without its two brightest stars. One has gone to play for a team that might actually challenge for a championship. The other has been bitten one more time by that infernal injury bug.
That bites. It really does.
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