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Sean Lee poised to join elite class

6/4/2013 - NFL Sean Lee Dallas Cowboys + more

IRVING, Texas -- It seemed like Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher played forever.

Between them, they played in 21 Pro Bowls and were first-team All-Pro picks 11 times. They were what everybody thought of as the perfect inside linebackers, even if Lewis played mostly in a 3-4 defense and Urlacher in a 4-3.

Both retired this offseason; Lewis after winning his second Super Bowl in Baltimore and Urlacher when he decided he wanted to play for Chicago and Chicago only after the Bears chose not to re-sign him.

Sean Lee watched both, stealing little pieces of their games when he played in high school, at Penn State and for the past three seasons with the Dallas Cowboys.

"They're Hall of Fame players," Lee said. "They really set the standard for how to play linebacker the last 15 or so years, which is pretty incredible. Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis were guys when you talk about linebackers that played it the right way."

Without Lewis and Urlacher, the NFL does not lack for suitable replacements at an iconic position. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman play it together in San Francisco as well as any duo. New England has Jerod Mayo. Carolina's Luke Kuechly was named the NFL's defensive rookie of the year last season.

And then there is Lee.

"I'm not worried about that kind of stuff," Lee said. "I'm worried about just doing my job to the max every game and winning football games and winning a Super Bowl. When you get caught up too much into that, you get away from what your focus is. Of course the comparisons happen, but that's not my focus at all."

Nothing can shake Lee's focus. Lee's focus in the earlier part of the offseason was rehabbing from toe surgery that cost him the final 10 games of last season. For the past few months the focus has been learning a new defense under Monte Kiffin.

"I need to be on the field more," Lee said. "I need to play a full football season."

That more than anything has kept Lee from garnering the attention players like Willis, Bowman and Mayo have received. Urlacher missed just 26 games in his 13 seasons, with 15 coming in one season. Lewis had eight 16-game seasons to his credit.

Lee missed two games as a rookie with a hamstring injury. In 2011, he suffered a partially dislocated left wrist and missed just one game, but played most of the second half of the season with a bulky cast.

Last year, it was the toe injury.

Despite missing 10 games, Lee still finished fourth on the team in tackles with 77. He tied a team record with 21 tackles at Seattle in Week 2. His one interception tied for second on the team, which speaks to how poor the Cowboys were in taking the ball away in 2012.

Lee has seven interceptions in his first three seasons. The only linebacker with more since 2010 is Washington's London Fletcher (eight). Urlacher had 22 picks in his career. Lewis finished with 31, the sixth-most by a linebacker in NFL history.

Because he is too familiar with injuries, Lee knew the stages of grief involved with missing games. He tried to help when he could but there was a feeling of hopelessness as the Cowboys missed the playoffs by a game for the second straight year.

"At the facility I didn't want to be moping around, but away from the facility and on game days, going home after a loss, that was the toughest," Lee said. "Away games that we lost, the Atlanta game, that loss was hard to take. I felt like if I could be out there I'd help us win."

Lee enters the final sessions of organized team activities that start today feeling 100 percent.

"The ligament I tore is extremely strong and back to normal," he said. "I don't wear anything in my shoe. I'm practicing full go. I'm doing every drill. I could play tomorrow if I had to."

But he doesn't have to.

The Cowboys' switch to the 4-3 has him studying a new defense, but not a new face. For years Urlacher was the dominant Tampa-2 inside linebacker in the NFL.

"He played with a ton of instinct, he played with a ton of passion and he played with a ton of intensity," Lee said. "If you just want to learn about linebackers, turn on the tape of Brian Urlacher."

Lee could be the next one all the linebackers talk about.