In 2012, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee played in just six games before he was lost for the rest of the season with a severe case of turf toe. But before he was hurt, Lee was playing at a supernatural level -- not only did he fill gaps at the line of scrimmage with speed and power, but he was also incredibly fast and agile in pass coverage. When the Cowboys hired defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to replace Rob Ryan, and installed Kiffin's Tampa-2 concepts, Lee seemed like the perfect fit as the middle linebacker in those schemes.
The Cowboys seem to agree. As first reported by Mike McCartney, Lee's agent, Lee has agreed to terms on a six-year, $42 million contract extension that will raise the $630,000 in base salary he was scheduled to earn in 2013 to a total of $16.13 million in the next two years. Lee's extension includes a $10 million signing bonus and playing time escalators that could increase the maximum value of the deal to $51 million. Lee was in the final year of his rookie deal, and the new contract will ostensibly take him through the 2019 season.
It's a high-risk, high-reward deal, to be sure. Lee has struggled with injuries going back to his time at Penn State, but when he's on the field, the second-round pick from the 2012 draft is one of the best in the game. Despite the fact that he missed 10 starts in 2012, he still ranked fourth on Dallas' roster in tackles, tied with safety Gerald Sensabaugh with 58. He also registered two tackles for loss, an interception, and a forced fumble.
"I feel like I have a ton to improve in all areas," Lee recently told SI.com's Austin Murphy. "When I watch the film, I see more of the negative than the positive. Seriously, when I look back at some of my old film, it makes me cringe, because there's so much I can improve. In the run game, I can cover more ground. I can blitz a ton better. I'm just going to keep studying, keep grinding. That's what's great about this game, you always have something to work on."
Former Cowboys scouting director Larry Lacewell, who's known Kiffin since the 1970s, fairly gushed with superlatives when asked how Lee would adjust to the transformation to the Tampa-2. In that scheme, middle linebackers are frequently asked to drop into coverage, and it's just as important for them to trail receivers up and down the seam as it is to deal with blockers up front.
“He will be absolutely great," Lacewell told ESPN Dallas in January. "He’s already great, but when you become a Mike [middle linebacker in a 4-3], that means you’re a whole-field player. In the 3-4, you’re a half-the-field player a lot of times. It’s just going to add to his greatness.” The Cowboys have invested a great deal in Lee's greatness, and though they'd probably like more of a history to go on, the tape doesn't lie -- if Lee stays healthy, this contract could be a real bargain.