Sean Lee contract future gets complex if 2018 is injury-ridden

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(Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)

Sean Lee isn’t oblivious to what lies ahead of him.

The dark cloud of injury again marred what could’ve easily been an All-Pro year for the veteran Dallas Cowboys‘ linebacker, with Lee missing five games in 2017 due to hamstring issues that have been an unfortunate staple in his otherwise stellar NFL career. His unavailability helped cost the Cowboys several losses as they failed to adjust in his absence, and it cost him individually as well, by way of a clause in his contract. Lee missed out on landing a serious windfall by being sidelined for such a lengthy overall period of time, losing what would’ve been a $2 million bonus had he played at least 80% of the defensive snaps last season.

“It’s unacceptable how much time I’ve missed,” he said to begin the offseason, via Jon Machota of The Dallas Morning News. “I got to stay on the football field.”

Lee went on to note how he will “look into anything that will help” him avoid the injuries that have plagued him throughout the course of his otherwise impactful career, most notably of the soft tissue variety.

“That’s on me, making sure I stay on the football field,” reiterated the two-time pro bowler.

Having earned the bonus in 2016, when he delivered 15 regular season starts, the team wouldn’t mind forking over that dough come next offseason.

There are high hopes for a durable 2018 for Lee, and it’s in the spirit the Cowboys weren’t afraid to take it slow with him this offseason. He sat out OTAs and minicamp practices and not because of any injury concerns, but more so because of the aforementioned history and ongoing caution. And considering the prowess of Lee, it’s not like he’s set to regress at all before the team heads to Oxnard, CA on July 25 to strap on the pads, so it’s certainly the wise move. The team went just 1-4 in his absence in 2017, a stint that included giving up over 10 additional points per contest, making it spring-water clear their oft-injured LB is the true MVP of the defensive unit.

Losing him for any amount of time would lead to grave concern, but it’s also one reason for the selection of Leighton Vander Esch with the 19th-overall pick, adding a sizable (literally) insurance policy at the weak side — if push comes to shove.

As much as the Cowboys love Lee, justifiably so, he’s not getting any younger. The former second-round pick hits the ripe age of 32 only three days ahead of training camp and his salary cap hit for 2018 is an obese $11.025 million — third-highest behind only Tyron Smith and DeMarcus Lawrence, the latter currently operating under a $17.5 million franchise tag. Lee’s cap number doesn’t take much of a dip in his final year either, sliding down a tad to a still robust $10.075 million in 2019, a figure only $900,000 shy of the team’s never-missed-a-single-game-in-five-years All-Pro center.

No one’s discussing jettisoning Lee, mostly because they shouldn’t at this point, but he’s rapidly approaching a point where talks will begin on what could be his final contract in the NFL. Ideally, that’ll be with the Cowboys, but the reality to making that materialize begins with a healthy 2018.

The veteran has dealt with everything from a torn ACL that sidelined him in 2014 to host of other injuries that have kept him from playing an entire regular season campaign since being drafted by the Cowboys with the 55th-overall pick in 2010. There is no denying he’s one of the best players in the league, but the task of remaining healthy becomes taller with the age of any NFL player and as much as he is a cyborg when on the field — the problem lies in being available to give NFL opponents the “boo-yah”. Time waits for no man, as some other Cowboys’ legends have discovered over the past two years, and Lee is only one of three players currently on the roster over the age of 30.

His leadership is as undeniable as his play, but his future with the club beyond 2018 — and most certainly 2019 — is to be determined, particularly when factoring in the financial aspect.

As we all know, EVP Stephen Jones is quick to remind everyone of how “it’s a business” at the end of the day. Hopefully, the end of Lee’s day comes no time soon, as being one of the best to ever suit up for the franchise isn’t an easily-earned designation. You won’t see a restructure of his deal next year considering there’d be only one year left, leaving the only options as an outright release, a pay cut or an extension to lessen the 2019 cap hit and keep Lee in tow for at least an addition 2-3 years — health permitting.

The latter would be a perfect end to an imperfect career made so by injury despite near-perfect play when available, a fitting send-off for a Cowboys’ great whose body simply betrayed him more often than it should’ve.

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