For Sean Lee to stick around in Dallas, the linebacker needed to adjust his playing expectations and his position.
With Jaylon Smith entrenched in the middle linebacker spot and Leighton Vander Esch becoming a Pro Bowl weakside ‘backer, Lee will move to the strong side of the formation, the veteran told reporters Wednesday night at a charity event for the Salvation Army.
Vander Esch took over Lee’s weakside spot last season when the incumbent again succumbed to injury. The rookie never gave up the gig and became a fan favorite along the way.
The Smith-LVE tandem gives Dallas one of the fastest sideline-to-sideline linebacker duos in the NFL, each with a nose for the football and ability to stuff ball carriers in space.
“That’s a dream come true to play with two young guys who love football,” Lee said of lining up alongside Vander Esch and Smith, via the Dallas Morning News. “All-Pro players who played unbelievable last year and really willed our team from a tough record early in the season, to snap back and get into the playoffs is really because of those guys, how well they played and the whole group, the whole defense.”
Smith and Vander Esch aren’t actually All-Pros yet, but each displays the playmaking ability to become one down the line.
Moving the strong-side linebacker, replacing Damien Wilson who left for Kansas City in free agency, will give Lee the chance to see the field in three-linebacker sets, but his playtime will be markedly slashed. Wilson averaged just 17 defensive snaps per game in 16 regular season contests last season, per Next Gen Stats.
Transitioning to the strong side of the formation will be an adjustment for Lee, but the decrease in playing time could keep him healthier in the long run. He’ll also be ready to slide back to the weak side or middle if injury strikes one of the young studs.