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Cowboys are better off forcing Sean Lee to prove he can stay healthy in 2013

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Cowboys are better off forcing Sean Lee to prove he can stay healthy in 2013
USA TODAY Sports

Middle linebacker, Sean Lee, is an integral part of the Dallas Cowboys defense. With him last year, the Cowboys gave up 22.2 points and 292.3 yards per game. Without him, they surrendered 26.7 points and 393.3 yards per game. 

The problem is that they were without him more often than they were with him, as the 26-year-old was forced to miss the final 10 games of his third NFL season due to a toe injury. He's yet to make it through an entire campaign without missing at least a game, with a slew of minor injuries limiting his contributions early in his pro career and a knee injury costing him an entire season at Penn State.

That has to be the only reason why the Cowboys might let Lee enter the final season of his four-year rookie contract, and I don't blame Dallas for taking that approach. 

Yes, the 'Boys have been tight against the cap and extending Lee's deal would likely force them to give him at least a mild immediately raise, but they've freed up plenty of cap space with right tackle Doug Free taking a pay cut and defensive end Marcus Spears' release becoming official. 

Besides, they'll be in an even tighter squeeze next year, when several restructured deals put them on the hook for extra cash at the same time Lee becomes eligible for free agency. The franchise tag should be avoided at all costs, so if Dallas wanted to lock Lee up long term, they'd do it right now. 

ESPNDallas.com's Todd Archer suggested last month that Free's pay cut would give the 'Boys the chance to get Lee a new contract before the start of the 2013 season, and we still have 12 weeks for that to transpire, but you do have to wonder if Jerry Jones and Co. are waiting first for proof that Lee can stay on the field for 16 weeks. 

They're gambling regardless. If they sign him now, they presumably get a small discount because Lee lost leverage when he missed the majority of the 2012 campaign. But then they're risking making a huge long-term financial investment in a player who might never dump the injury prone label. If they wait and he finally delivers for a full season, the price shoots up and they either lose him to the open market or they pay a higher price than they would have one year prior.

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This guy could be a franchise-leading linebacker in the middle of Monte Kiffin's 4-3 Tampa-2 defense. He finished fourth on the team in tackles last year despite playing only 38 percent of the season, and he was on pace to make 155 tackles altogether, which would have ranked second in the NFL. 

He's exactly what the Cowboys had been looking for on defense for years. But he's yet to deliver because he hasn't been able to remain healthy on a consistent basis. Injuries are a significant part of this game, and they have to be taken into account here.

Dallas should force Lee to prove he can avoid them in 2013 before making any major decisions about his future. If he lives up to the hype in a contract year, you reap those short-term benefits and aren't forced to grin and bear contract talks in 2014. You take solace in the fact you only had to pay him $630,000 for a healthy, productive 2013 campaign and then you pay up. 

Worst case, you have that franchise tag in your back pocket. Using that, you force Lee to prove it one more time. That might not be the most player-friendly approach, but this is a business, and the same strategy has certainly worked with pass-rusher Anthony Spencer. 

Unless you're getting one hell of a discount here from Lee and his agent, there's really no reason to rush.

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