- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Dallas Cowboys are bracing for rotten news on inside linebacker Sean Lee, who as Todd Archer reports could need season-ending surgery on his right big toe. Lee injured the toe in the third quarter of Sunday's victory over the Panthers in Carolina and said after the game that he expected to be fine. But he had an MRI on Monday, and it sounds as though the results were quite discouraging.
As Todd points out, there are plenty of people on the Cowboys' roster who can play linebacker:
Dan Connor would replace Lee in the starting lineup, and he earned praise from coach Jason Garrett for his work against the Panthers, which included a third-down stop of Cam Newton and a pass deflection, after taking over for Lee. Second-year linebacker Bruce Carter would become the defensive signal caller. The Cowboys have Orie Lemon and Alex Albright as backup inside linebackers on the 53-man roster but could look to add another inside linebacker.
However, in spite of the depth the Cowboys have at the position, Lee is not a replaceable player for them. Not only is he their defensive captain and one of their most important leaders, he has played consistently better this year than has any other player on their defense, including superstar outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and either of their two new and very talented cornerbacks. Lee's instincts and playmaking ability cannot be replicated by players like Carter or Connor, no matter how capable they are.
When you've watched the Cowboys' defense this year, you've generally been impressed. And I believe they'll continue to cover receivers well with Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, continue to rush the passer well with Ware and Jason Hatcher and continue to defend the run capably with the help of Anthony Spencer. They have more good players on defense at this point than they do on offense, and I think they will still play fairly good defense the rest of the way.
But Lee has been playing at a transcendent, superstar-type level -- one of the absolute best defensive playmakers at any position on any team in the league this year. The closest comparison of which I keep thinking is the Steelers' Troy Polamalu in his prime -- the way he was always able to be around the ball, whether it was due to speed, instincts, pre-snap positioning or a combination of everything. That's what Lee was delivering this year -- a player who at times made it look as though the Cowboys were playing with an extra man on defense. They simply don't have anyone else on the roster who can play football the way Lee has been playing it. Few teams, if any, do.