Sean Lee and Leighton Vander Esch: It's a good problem for Cowboys

Leighton Vander Esch has equaled the Cowboys rookie record for tackles. Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports

FRISCO, Texas -- A rookie who has surprised everybody, if not himself, putting up numbers rarely seen -- if ever -- by a Dallas Cowboys first-year player.

The team has lost just one game he has started.

There are even rumblings that the team should stick with him once the multi-Pro Bowl starter he replaced is healthy.

This was the situation in 2016, when the Cowboys ultimately stuck with Dak Prescott over Tony Romo. Prescott got the Cowboys off to an 11-1 start as Romo, the franchise leader in passing yards and touchdown passes, recovered from a compression fracture in his back.

In 2018, the Cowboys have a similar situation regarding Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee.

Vander Esch has equaled the Cowboys record for tackles by a rookie in a season (136 by the coaches' breakdown) set by Dexter Coakley in 1997, and he still has three games left to play. The Cowboys are 7-1 when Vander Esch starts, losing only his first start.

Lee has missed the Cowboys' five-game winning streak because he re-aggravated a pulled left hamstring suffered Nov. 5 against the Tennessee Titans. This week, he has gone through two limited practices, but he should be available to play Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts.

In what role? That's to be determined.

"Sean's one of our best players. When he's able to go, we'll give him an opportunity to get back in there," coach Jason Garrett said. "He's worked very hard the last few weeks getting himself right. But he's also worked very hard with those guys to help them play as well as they have. Once he's healthy and ready to go, we'll give him a chance to get back in the lineup somehow."

Recently on KRLD-FM 105.3 The Fan in Dallas, owner and general manager Jerry Jones said Lee would regain his starting spot once healthy, adding, "make no mistake about it, when [Lee is] right, there's nobody better. He's such an integral part of adjusting on the field and making the big play."

Jones went on to say "it's a great problem to have," of getting Lee back into the mix while making sure Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith continue to play prominent roles.

This is where the parallels between the Prescott-Romo conundrum go away. Yes, a team could choose to play multiple quarterbacks -- hey, Tom Landry did it with Roger Staubach and Craig Morton -- but the reality says otherwise.

Multiple linebackers can play at the same time, and the Cowboys only sparingly use a dime defense that has just one linebacker on the field.

"We've got to wait and see how it all works out, but just like we had it earlier in the year, you have a chance to rotate some guys and some of those things," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "It's a good thing to have. It keeps everybody a little bit fresher and sharper, especially as the season goes on."

The trio of Lee, Smith and Vander Esch have started and finished just three games together: the first two of the season and Oct. 21 at the Washington Redskins. Lee played 59, 41 and 38 snaps in those games. Smith played 62, 57 and 58 snaps. Vander Esch played 17, 28 and 21 snaps.

While outsiders might have an issue with how the Cowboys (8-5) approach the playing time in Lee's return, the players who are directly involved don't.

Lee understands what Vander Esch has meant to the defense during the winning streak, averaging nearly 12 tackles a game to go along with two tackles for loss, two interceptions and five pass breakups. He set the team rookie record with 19 tackles against the Eagles on Nov. 11 and was named the NFC's Defensive Player of the Week. He was named the Defensive Rookie of the Month for November. Smith has made pivotal plays, like his goal-line stop in the victory against the New Orleans Saints.

"We'll see what they want to do. I know if I'm healthy I can make plays on the football field and help this team win," Lee said recently. "Whatever role that will be, we'll find out. I have to stay healthy. That's the thing. I can't be in and out. I've got to be able to put the games together, stay on the football field, put practices together week in and week out. That's my goal now, but I know if I can do that I can make plays and help this team win."

While limited, Lee's return to practice has given the defense some energy.

"Fires me up to hear him calling the huddle," cornerback Byron Jones said.

Even though he could not play, Lee stayed engaged with the team. The 32-year-old was involved in all of the meetings. He attended all of the games, home and away. He arrived early. He stayed late. He has tried to teach Smith and Vander Esch everything he has to offer.

"That's where Sean sets the standard for a lot of us," defensive end Tyrone Crawford said. "We're all trying to live up to that standard. If he's not playing, he's still in here hours on hours on hours after meetings. If you're not doing that, then that says something about you. We're just trying to live up to the Sean Lee standard. And he sets it well. And he's never changed. What he does on the field, he's an animal."

Lee has played in parts of five games, but the coaches credited him with 35 tackles to go along with a half-sack, one tackle for loss, two quarterback pressures, a pass deflection and a fumble recovery.

"He's still got juice left in the tank," Smith said. "I've done nothing but learn from him, passing the torch on to me. It's something I've been preparing for, but when he's healthy, he's still got some juice left. I'm happy to have him back. The team is happy to have him back. And he's going to be out there making some plays. It's going to be a great thing."