- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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IRVING, Texas -- His spectacular performance in the season opener shouldn't be considered a surprise. It should be the standard.
Sean Lee is supposed to be special.
That's why Jerry Jones was so giddy after Lee slid toward the bottom of the second round in the 2010 draft, allowing the Cowboys to trade up to take him with the 55th overall pick. Jones boasted that evening about stealing a guy they graded as the No. 16 player in the draft.
Others at Valley Ranch thought even more highly of Lee, the Penn State product whose draft stock dipped due to a serious knee injury. One scout said Patrick Willis, San Francisco's perennial Pro Bowler, was the only better inside linebacker who had come out of college in the past decade.
A couple of coaches in Cleveland at the time felt the same way about Lee after watching him play for the Nittany Lions and getting to know him at Penn State's Pro Day. Rob Ryan and Matt Eberflus tried to talk the Browns' front office into trading up for Lee.
"He's got all the good things you look for in a linebacker," said Eberflus, who followed Ryan to Dallas as the Cowboys' new defensive coordinator's linebackers coach and right-hand man.
There's no reason Lee shouldn't be the best inside linebacker of the Jerry Jones era. Really, that's setting the bar low for a player with Lee's combination of character and ability.
After all, the Cowboys haven't had a Pro Bowl full-time inside linebacker since Bob Breunig in 1982. (Ken Norton, primarily an outside linebacker during his career, did start 13 games in the middle during his 1993 Pro Bowl campaign.) If Lee fulfills his potential, he'll line the top of his locker with stickers, a new tradition Jason Garrett has started at Valley Ranch to recognize Pro Bowl appearances.
All due respect to Bradie James, a solid inside linebacker who has led the Cowboys in tackles the past six seasons, but Lee is a completely different level of playmaker. Here's proof: Lee has three interceptions in the past two games in which he was healthy, which is one pick more than James has in 127 career games.
Keith Brooking, one of the veterans whose playing time has decreased drastically to get on the field, has five of those stickers, all from his days in Atlanta. The Cowboys considered Lee a baby Brooking when they drafted him, a comparison the 14-year veteran considers on the money.
"I've said all along, the sky's the limit for Sean," Brooking said. "He's very instinctive. I think just the more reps he gets, the more familiar with the defense he gets, you're just going to see him continue to progress. He's extremely intelligent, he works his tail off. So, yeah, he's going to be a heck of a football player."
Never mind going to be. Lee still has a lot of developing to do, but the Cowboys need him to be a dominant force now. This is a defense that desperately needs a young playmaker to emerge along with middle-aged Pro Bowlers DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff.
Maybe cornerback Mike Jenkins and/or outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, a pair of former first-round picks, can snap back to their 2009 form. Lee, however, ranks at the top of the list of rising defensive stars the Cowboys are counting on now and for the foreseeable future.
Eberflus can go down the checklist of attributes he looks for from inside linebackers -- instincts, football IQ, toughness, competitiveness, strength, speed, quickness -- and Lee has them all. The lone knock on Lee is doubts about his durability after he missed time due to quad, hamstring, shoulder and head injuries as a rookie who had recovered from a devastating knee injury in college.
And Lee's durability apparently isn't a concern for the Cowboys. He played all but nine defensive downs in addition to covering kickoffs and punts in the season opener.
The Cowboys say that they have three starters at inside linebacker, but Lee is clearly the lead dog of the pack despite being the baby of the bunch. You'll never hear Lee say that -- "I'm still a guy who looks to them to learn a lot," he said of Brooking and James -- but the defensive snaps don't lie. And Lee was on the field for more plays in the opener against the New York Jets than Brooking and James combined.
Lee also made more plays than both veterans, by a lopsided margin. He roamed sideline to sideline to make 11 tackles, showed incredible instincts and athleticism to snare an interception he returned 37 yards to set up a touchdown, and came up with a fumble at the bottom of a pile (although press box statisticians officially credited Danny McCray with the recovery).
It was every bit as impressive as his last healthy performance, when Lee was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week after a nine-tackle, two-pick, one-touchdown day in a win over Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts last season. The challenge is to keep it coming.
"One of the things that we believe is if they've done it once, they're capable of doing it over and over and over again," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "We're obviously looking for that consistency."
That's what stars do. That's where the expectations stand for Lee.
Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.
Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee has the potential to be a special player.