Every time you hand out a new contract in the NFL, you're taking a risk. Nobody will dispute that giving at least $42 million to middle linebacker Sean Lee involved some risk for the Dallas Cowboys, but you also can't win in this league without taking smart gambles like the one Dallas took Wednesday.
It's a six-year deal worth $42 million and $16.15 million guaranteed, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Charean Williams and Clarence Hill, who also report that incentives based on the time Lee spends on the field could push that total number to the $51 million mark.
It's simple. If the 27-year-old continues to flourish the way he has the past of couple years, he'll be worth every penny. But if injuries continue to restrict his impact, the gamble probably won't pay off for the Cowboys.
Lee has missed 13 games in three seasons and has not made it through a 16-game campaign. In 2010, it was a hamstring. In 2011, a wrist. And this past season, he missed 10 games with a toe injury.
That could mean he's prone to injury and will be for life. But it could also mean he's had some bad luck with three very different injuries. At least it's not the same problem every time, which would be more concerning.
The good news for the Cowboys is that the incentives can lessen the pain. Lee explained it himself Wednesday evening, as reported by Nick Eatman of DallasCowboys.com:
Obviously I’ve had injuries and I’ve said I need to find a way to stay on this field. And the contract is extremely fair. If I’m on the field the whole year, I’ll be able to get paid. But if I do have injuries, it protects the Cowboys and I think that’s fantastic, especially with the injuries I’ve dealt with in the past. Hopefully I’ll find a way to be on the field every single year. That’s my goal. So I think it’s extremely fair.
If Lee can't stay healthy and makes the bare minimum over the course of the contract, he'll get about $7 million a year, making him the eighth-highest-paid inside linebacker in football, per the latest numbers from Spotrac. But if he delivers and stays healthy, he'll be the second-highest-paid inside linebacker in the game, with an average annual salary of $8.5 million.
If that's the case, the Cowboys won't care what he's raking in. Sean Lee will become a steal.
The man is absolutely the future of this defense. If this current incarnation of the Dallas Cowboys is going to become something special, Lee has to be a part of it. He, DeMarcus Ware, Tony Romo and Dez Bryant are integral pieces to the puzzle, and you can't really put a dollar figure on that.
Lee was the team's fourth-leading tackler in 2012 despite playing only 38 percent of the season. He was among the top five tacklers in the league on a per-game basis, and he missed only two tackles over the course of the first six weeks of the 2013 campaign. Pro Football Focus had him rated as the second-best inside linebacker in football before he went down with that season-ending toe injury.
With Lee healthy during the first six weeks last season, the Dallas D ranked in the top half of the league in terms of total rushing yards allowed and yards per attempt surrendered. They held opposing running games to 90 yards or fewer 66.7 percent of the time, and they gave up only 22.2 points per game.
Without Lee for the final 10 games, they were ranked 27th in rushing yards allowed and 29th in yards per attempt against. They could only hold one of those remaining 10 opponents to fewer than 90 rushing yards (10 percent) and allowed an average of 26.7 points per game.
Of course, this could backfire. The sample size is small, and health risks exist. In two or three years, the Cowboys could look silly. They could be NFC East bottom feeders, with Romo's and Lee's contracts joining the front office wall of shame.
But with the cap situation as tight as possible and Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher slated to become free agents at the end of this season, this was the right time for Dallas to throw in the remainder of its chips. It has provided itself some cap relief now, which might not have been as easy in March, especially if Lee has a productive season.
We already knew the Cowboys were going all-in with that eight-figure Romo contract, so raising the stakes only makes sense.