IRVING, Texas -- Sean Lee believes in protocol.
While he might have taken over as the Dallas Cowboys' defensive signal-caller in 2011, he did not believe it was his place to become the voice of the defense. That belonged to Bradie James and Keith Brooking, the two veteran inside linebackers, and guys such as DeMarcus Ware or Jay Ratliff.
While Ware and Ratliff remain in 2012, James and Brooking are gone, and Lee's voice will grow.
"If there is something that needs to be addressed, I have no problems addressing it," Lee said.
It is a natural ascension for Lee, made easier because of how well he played last season. He led the Cowboys with 131 tackles, a staggering 52 more than the second-leading tackler, Abram Elam, even though he missed a game and a half. He tied for the team lead with eight tackles for loss. He tied for the team lead in interceptions with four. His eight pass deflections were tied for second most on the team. He recovered two fumbles and added five quarterback pressures.
And he did it playing with a dislocated wrist suffered Oct. 30 at Philadelphia.
Lee did not just earn the right to become a vocal presence in the locker room; he hammered it home like a vicious form tackle.
"I think that's natural for guys that play his position, those inside linebacker positions," coach Jason Garrett said. "They're the quarterback of the defense and a lot of guys look to them really for communication, for adjustments you make in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage, and Sean really took the bull by the horns and took over that role last year. He's a really smart guy. He's very conscientious. He knows the defense inside and out."
One offseason change in the Cowboys' locker room is where certain players are stationed. The lockers for Ware, Doug Free, Ratliff, Jason Witten, Tony Romo and Lee are now at each of the three entrance points to the room.
Perhaps fittingly, Lee now occupies James' old locker space.
"I've got a ton of great guys on the team right now to look up to," Lee said. "Obviously Tony, Jason, DeMarcus, those are the guys I'm looking up to and trying to be like. At the same point, I'm trying to become a better leader myself. Brook and Bradie are guys I have unbelievable respect for, that I have learned a ton from and that I was blessed to play with. So I'm going to try to use some of those lessons I learned from them to try to help."
Being a leader does not always mean being popular. You have to tell teammates the truth whether they want to hear it or not. It's up to them to listen.
Lee, who played at Penn State, was unafraid to speak his mind last year when the Nittany Lions scandal broke, reminding people the most important people involved were the children, not the football program.
When other former players voiced displeasure at the hiring of Bill O'Brien as Joe Paterno's successor, Lee offered a statement of support for the Nittany Lions' new coach.
Lee has earned the gravitas even if he has yet to play in a Pro Bowl. He was one of a handful of veterans at the team's rookie minicamp to work out after the draft. He is among the last to leave the facility every day. After the wrist injury, he played with a bulky cast that prevented him from wrapping up his tackles or holding on to passes. He didn't miss a day of practice.
"As a leader, you have to lead by example, and you do that by working hard every day," Lee said. "Also I will do anything I can do to help the team. The best leaders will do whatever they can to help the team win. After that, it's go out on the field, execute and make plays and help other teammates become better. That is something I have always been interested in.
"It's not so much about me, but can I make my teammates better? That is more of my concern. That's something I was taught by my coaches, by my dad, growing up."