Commentary

Cowboys stick to their draft board

Team has other needs, but LB Lee is a good fit and could be a first-round talent

Updated: April 24, 2010, 2:30 AM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- If you thought the Dallas Cowboys were going to use a high pick to take a safety or a left tackle or guard, think again.

The Cowboys have needs at those positions, but they stayed true to their draft board by taking the highest-ranked remaining player on each of their first two picks.

Friday's second-round pick, Penn State linebacker Sean Lee, was ranked among the top 16 players in the draft by the Cowboys.

"He can play anywhere. He is not an outside linebacker in our defense, but he can play what we call Mike and Moe," coach Wade Phillips said, referring to the terminology the Cowboys use for their inside linebackers. "He could play either and be effective at both."

Bradie James and Keith Brooking are the starters at those positions. But there's a chance neither will be around in the long term.

Brooking turns 35 in October. The Atlanta Falcons released him following the 2008 season because of his age and what they felt was a diminishing skill level. James turned 29 in January and is signed through the 2011 season.

Sooner or later, the Cowboys were going to have to address insider linebacker. They chose sooner.

Phillips said Lee can play James' position, but he reminds many of how Brooking plays: tough and physical.

"It is something that I feel like I can play like if I really take my time and learn from those guys," Lee said. "The Cowboys play hard-nosed football, and I really feel like I can play like that."

Lee tore his right ACL in Penn State's 2008 spring game and needed a medical redshirt for a fifth year. When he got it, Lee missed three games with a sprained left knee. He wore a knee brace his final year but shed it for workouts in front of NFL scouts.

But teams weren't convinced.

"They were not concerned about me as a football player, they were concerned about my health, which is a legitimate question," Lee said. "I had not been healthy the last two years, but I changed the way I was training a little bit and geared it toward my weakness."

He changed his training techniques to build up his legs so teams wouldn't have any more questions.

The Cowboys need Lee to be healthy. Of the 15 teams that use a form of the 3-4 defense, the Cowboys have the oldest projected pair of starting inside linebackers.

Age has to be a factor here, and that's why they need Lee, 23, to make an impact.

The Cowboys most likely will have Lee fight for the nickel linebacker job against Bobby Carpenter, the former first-round pick who might get shopped. Jason Williams, a draft choice from last year who battled injuries, is also in the mix at inside linebacker spot.

But it's clear Lee is the favorite to take over a starting job in 2011, and owner/general manager Jerry Jones expects him to be on the field plenty as a rookie.

"He's a three-down player," Jones said. "That's the way I'll describe it. ... Can you have three starters at a two-side position? I think you can."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.