Cowboys’ Lee extension a win for both sides

ARLINGTON, Texas — The Cowboys are making the switch to the 4-3 scheme, in part because they feel like they have one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL. On Wednesday, the Cowboys agreed to compensate Lee like an elite player with a six-year contract that could be worth as much as $51 million if he reaches several incentives.

Lee will receive roughly $16 million in guaranteed money, according to various reports. That’s not a staggering amount for a core player, which shows that Jerry Jones has finally learned a thing or two.

The contract recognizes the fact Lee has missed 13 games in his first three seasons due to injury. He could’ve rolled the dice and probably squeezed more money out of the Cowboys or another team, but Lee put a premium on security.

This allows the Cowboys to avoid using the franchise tag on Lee, which is something they’ve had to do for two straight seasons with Anthony Spencer. It’s a gamble based on Lee’s injury history, but it’s a wise one. He was on pace to have a Lee Roy Jordan-type season in terms of tackles in 2012 until he suffered a freak toe injury that caused him to miss the final 10 games of the season.

As a rookie in 2010, Lee learned under veteran linebacker Keith Brooking. He soaked up everything he could and then took over as a starter in 2011. On a defense that has been awful when it comes to takeaways, Lee has a knack for interceptions. He’s not as talented as defensive end DeMarcus Ware, but he’s a better leader. No one on this team, other than perhaps Jason Witten, is respected as much as Lee.

He will join Bruce Carter as one of the better linebacker duos in the league. And in this new scheme, they will have more protection up front. Lee had a legitimate 21 tackles last season in a loss to the Seahawks. The Cowboys feed off his intelligence and passion.

I was struck by how eloquent Lee was during the scandal at his alma mater Penn State. Like a lot of former Nittany Lions, he worshipped the late Joe Paterno. But Lee also expressed disgust that his former coach didn’t do everything he could to protect children.

Even though he was heading into the final year of his rookie contract, Lee didn’t make it an issue. And if he can avoid injuries, he will certainly outperform this contract.

Too many times, Jones has rewarded players with lucrative contracts based on what he hopes they will become. But with the 27-year-old Lee, Jerry and son Stephen seemed to strike just the right balance.

Two years ago Cowboys defensive tackle Jason Hatcher couldn’t name a single leader on the team during a radio interview. He was stumped.

If he was asked the same question today, I believe Lee would be one of the first players mentioned. He’s one of the main reasons the Cowboys now seem to have some substance.

This appears to be a contract where both sides won.