When Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee was asked about lining up across from Jason Witten during OTAs on Wednesday, the two-time Pro Bowler almost blushed.
“Since I got here, he was a guy I’ve followed around everywhere,” Lee told reporters. “We’ve always looked up to him here.”
Witten, who recently turned 37, rejoined the Cowboys after a brief retirement that was spent in the Monday Night Football booth.
The future Hall of Fame tight end had mixed reviews for his skills on a broadcast, but now he’s back doing what he does best – competing on the gridiron.
“Being here, you always admired him, the way he practiced and played. Last year we definitely missed him,” Lee said. “He’s going to push you to the next level. You have to know you’re coming in with a certain type of intensity. You have to be ready, you have to be at your best because of how good of a player he is, and how smart and competitive he is.”
Witten announced he would return to the team in March through a statement, bringing to close rampant speculation of his return to football. He just couldn’t stay away from Big D.
“The fire inside of me to compete and play this game is just burning too strong,” Witten said in a statement. “This team has a great group of rising young stars, and I want to help them make a run at a championship. This was completely my decision, and I am very comfortable with it. I’m looking forward to getting back in the dirt.”
Lee, 33, is a talented but oft-injured linebacker and put some thought into his own retirement in the offseason. But after some time, Lee agreed to a restructured deal and a position change to strong side linebacker to stick around.
“Some of the situations are very similar to what I’ve done in the past,” Lee told reporters on Wednesday. “I’ve tried to pride myself on being versatile and being able to adapt, play different positions, learn them and hopefully become an expert at it.”
NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport reported that Lee agreed to a restructured deal in March, and will earn $3.5 million in 2019. He has the opportunity to earn his way back through incentives to the $7 million in base salary originally owed to him, Rapoport added.
While their production isn’t expected to be what it was in their prime, Lee and Witten will be looked at as two of the team’s core leaders as Dallas looks to make the postseason for a second year in a row — a feat the Cowboys haven’t accomplished since the 2006-07 seasons.
It’s still unknown the extent that Witten will play this season for the Cowboys, especially after a year off. But offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has liked what he’s seen so far, although he noted Witten likely won’t play 97 percent of the snaps like he did in the season before his hiatus.
“We feel great about where Whit is at,” Moore said from OTAs on Wednesday. “Naturally, he’s probably not going to play 97 percent, but once you get 100,000 in the crowd, Whit is probably going to want to play a whole lot.”
Even entering his 10th season, Lee has embraced the OTA experience. That’s something not every player in the NFL can say (see: Odell Beckham Jr.).
“I think it’s a huge part of the year,” Lee said. “You have to start building your team at this time of year. The shared sacrifice, the hard work — you start building those bonds right now.”
Cowboys mandatory minicamp runs from June 11-13.