As of this morning, Brian Urlacher is no longer an active NFL player. He took to Twitter to announce his retirement, and with it, the game lost one of the all-time great MLB's. Urlacher's tenacity was nothing if not palpable. The look on his face that was captured pre-snap by ESPN's zip line cameras was often downright scary, regardless of how much distance was between you and the field. With both Urlacher's and former Baltimore Ravens LB Ray Lewis retiring this offseason, the question now becomes who will take up the mantle as the best Linebackers in the league? Patrick Willis is one. Can Dallas Cowboys LB Sean Lee be the other?
Now let's start this off by saying Sean Lee NEEDS to stay healthy to truly get in this conversation. But, since we're all Cowboys fans here, let's pretend that Lee stays relatively injury-free for the next few seasons. Can he replicate the type of play that became so nonchalantly expected of Urlacher? In a word, probably. One cannot watch a Dallas Cowboys game without noticing Lee. He simply pops up all over the field, making plays both north and south and sideline to sideline. His instincts are uncanny, something that LBs either possess (like Urlacher does) or they don't. Sean Lee's got 'em.
The thing that Lee hasn't had is the ability to stay on the field. Through his first three seasons, Urlacher didn't miss a game. Lee has missed 13, including the final 10 games last season. Lee also wasn't a major factor in his Rookie season, being forced to recover from a torn ACL sustained prior to his senior season at Penn State. But Urlacher did eventually endure his share of injuries as well. He missed half of the 2004 season, and all but one game in 2009. He also missed four games this past season. It's just tough to stay healthy in this business.
Even in such a limited sample size, Lee has shown that he can be a premier player in this league. His two interception performance against Peyton Manning in 2010 will live in Dallas lore for ages, but will that be the highlight of lost potential or merely a footnote to a great career? That's up to Lee's ability to stay on the field. If he can do so, look for Sean Lee to challenge Urlacher's 8 Pro Bowls, and hopefully do something that Urlacher never did: Win a Super Bowl.
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