There is a legitimate argument to be made that Sean Lee is the best linebacker in the NFL. Granted, his health is always going to be a concern, but the difference between the Dallas Cowboys defense with him on the field and without him is absolutely enormous. Dallas gave up 31.8 points per game when Lee was on the sideline, a total that would have been dead last in the NFL by nearly five full points. With Lee, the Cowboys gave up 173 points in 11 games. That is only 15.7 per game, which would have been the best total in the NFL over the full season. The Cowboys allowed nearly half of the total points they gave up all season in the five games Lee missed. He is absolutely essential to their team, and is rivaled only by players like Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner at his own position.
That makes it surprising to see Lee finish third on a list of best linebackers in the NFC East by NJ.com’s Mike Lombardo. Here is what he had to say on the subject.
“Sean Lee’s injury history is far lengthier than Hicks’, and if he had been able to consistently stay healthier and on the field, he just might have a Hall of Fame resume. Lee is a dynamic playmaker and leader in the heart of the Cowboys’ defense, and his value is illustrated by the fact that Dallas owns a 21-16 record in games without him in the lineup, including going winless in those contests over the past three seasons.”
Lee may be an injury risk, but it’s worth noting that the No. 2 finisher on this list was Olivier Vernon, who played in only one more game than Lee last season. First-place finisher Ryan Kerrigan played in all 16 games last season, but neither of them made much of a difference for their teams. The Redskins finished 21st in total defense last season. The Giants finished 31st. It’s hard to imagine a team with a linebacker better than Lee fairing that badly, but then, if we’re being honest, neither of these players are really linebackers.
They are pass-rushers, and a distinction needs to be drawn there. Just because a pass-rusher stands up doesn’t mean he is a linebacker. A linebacker has specific duties that teammates of Vernon and Kerrigan carry out. They deserve to be compared to Lee. These players don’t, because their job is to get after the quarterback. It is apples to oranges. DeMarcus Lawrence is a better pass-rusher than either Vernon or Kerrigan, but he doesn’t appear on this list because he plays with a hand on the ground. That is the only practical difference between him and Vernon in particular.
Lee is the best linebacker in the NFC East. He is one of the best in the NFL. He deserves the benefit of the doubt until he is proven injured. When he is on the field, the Cowboys would choose Lee over anyone. They’d choose him over Vernon or Kerrigan even factoring in the occasions when he isn’t.