Sean Lee Injury Starts NFL Season

By Bryan Knowles

Less than 24 hours into the formal beginning of offseason training activities, we have our first major injury of the 2014 NFL season.

According to ESPN, star linebacker Sean Lee of the Dallas Cowboys has torn his left ACL, the third ACL tear of his football career.

Lee was injured in a non-contact practice, though "non-contact" is a bit of a misnomer: Lee was blocked to the ground on a screen pass by first-round pick Zack Martin.  While we're still waiting the results of the MRI, it doesn't look good for the oft-injured linebacker.

Lee has yet to play a full season in the NFL, and has missed 15 games over the last two seasons alone.  If the worst comes to play here, it could be another entire season lost for the talented, yet injury-prone linebacker.

It's a sobering reminder that football can be an exceptionally violent sport at the best of times—even in a "non-contract" drill, a required by the collective bargaining agreement, contact happens.  No matter what rule changes you make, what safety equipment you introduce to the game, or how you structure your practices, you can't get rid of all injuries.

It happens every year.  Last season, the San Francisco 49ers saw their offense dramatically altered by Michael Crabtree's Achilles tear, which happened about this time last season.  Their passing game took a nosedive from 206 yards per game down to 186, and saw their use of multiple receiver sets drop to the lowest in the league.

If the Cowboys do lose Lee, they're likely to have a similar negative impact on the defensive side of the ball.

With Lee on the field last season, Cowboys opponents took 24.1 plays between touchdowns.  They only successfully converted on 40.6% of their third downs, and threw for 19 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions.  Those are fairly solid numbers across the board.

Sean Lee Injury Starts NFL Season
October 20, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA: Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Sean Lee (50) during second half action against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Photo courtesy by - Jeffrey Pittenger-USA TODAY Sports.

With Lee out due to injuries, however, all of those numbers dropped.  It took just 19 plays for Cowboys opponents to score touchdowns against a Lee-less defense.  They converted third downs 47.6% of the time, and they threw 14 touchdown passes and only 3 interceptions.  With Lee off the field, the Cowboys defense became significantly more porous.

The Cowboys did go out and draft a couple of linebackers in this year's draft who could potentially cover Lee's middle linebacker position.  In the fourth round, the Cowboys took Anthony Hitchens out of Iowa.  The move was somewhat surprising at the time; had Hitchens pegged as a seventh-round pick, as he's undersized and better suited to play weakside linebacker.

They could also try sliding in seventh-round pick Will Smith out of Texas Tech, but counting on seventh-round picks to deliver starting-caliber play off the bat isn't a tactic for long-term success.  He's speedy, but is going to be better suited coming off the edge in the NFL.  He's more of a special-teams prospect in year one.

The other name they have who could slide in would be Kyle Wilber, who started six games last year as an outside linebacker, although he's more been moved to the defensive line.  He stole the starting job from Justin Durant at the end of last season.  He could possibly be moved over to the Mike position, as could DeVonte Holloman.

This is all assuming Lee's injury is as bad as it initially appears.  Perhaps the Cowboys will get lucky, and Lee just suffered a painful sprain, and will only miss a few weeks.

It seems more likely, however, that this is the first in what will be a series of key players lost for the season before the season even begins.  A reminder that, when it comes to OTAs, no news is good news.

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