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Where does Sean Lee rank among all-time great PSU linebackers?

Photo by Dallas Cowboys

Let’s play some word association. When you think of Sean Lee, what’s the first word that comes to mind?

Warrior is a good one.

Professional is another.

Character works, also.

Unfortunately, this word also pops into your mind: Injuries.

Lee retired from the NFL on Monday after an impressive 11-year run with the Dallas Cowboys. The 34-year-old from Pittsburgh, who played at Penn State from 2005-09, played 118 games (92 starts) in the NFL and had 802 tackles (60 for loss), 14 interceptions and four sacks.

Lee was a two-time Pro Bowler (2015 and ’16) and first-team All-Pro in 2016.

When he was on the field, Lee was always a force to be reckoned with. Like it was mentioned above, he was a warrior who always had a nose for the football.

Off the field, Lee was always a great guy to deal with, both for media and fans. A personable, intelligent guy, he represented himself and Penn State very well, then did the same during his Cowboys career.

That’s where the word professional comes into play.

It’s hard, however, not to look back on Lee’s very good career and wonder just how great he could have been without all the injuries

He missed the 2008 season at Penn State after tearing the ACL in his right knee during a spring practice that April. He missed the 2014 NFL season after tearing an ACL again. He played just six games in 2012 because of a turf toe injury. He was limited to seven games in 2018 and nine last season because of injuries.

Lee battled through each and every injury and remained a productive player on the field. But he wound up missing a lot of games during his career, leading many to wonder how great he could have been if only he would have had better luck from a health standpoint.

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So, where does Lee rank among the all-time great Penn State linebackers? His 313 career tackles rank fifth in program history, and his 138 tackles in 2007 rank third for a single season.

If we’re including college AND NFL success, this is how I would rank the Penn State linebackers. Believe me, I know there can be a lot of debate about this list, because we’re talking about a bunch of great players. But again, I’m including college and NFL success as my criteria, which makes a lot of difference because a strong case can be made that, if only considering their PSU careers, LaVar Arrington should be No. 1.

1: Jack Ham — Great in college, legend in the NFL with four Super Bowl titles for Steelers.

2: Shane Conlan — Legend in college, three-time All-Pro and three Super Bowl appearances for Buffalo Bills.

3: NaVorro Bowman — This may surprise some people, but as I’ve written about before, Bowman is the best Penn State linebacker in the NFL this century. Don’t believe me? Check out this breakdown of his career. Or, just simply know that he was first-team All-Pro FOUR TIMES! Neither LaVar Arrington nor Paul Posluszny was ever first-team All-Pro during their impressive careers.

4: LaVar Arrington — college superstar, two-time second-team All-Pro in NFL but hampered by injuries.

5: Paul Posluszny — This is a tough one. Poz was a better college player than Lee, but Lee had more success with awards in the NFL. But I’m gonna give the slight edge to Posluszny, who played on a lot of bad NFL teams and never fully got the recognition he deserved.

6: Sean Lee — If not for all the injuries, I could see him being ranked as high as No. 4 on this list. Those top three are just in a different category, again in large part because of their great NFL success.

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Cory Giger is a 15-year veteran of the Penn State beat and a journalist with 28 years of experience. He has won more than 100 state and national journalism awards during his career, plus he's a voter for the Heisman Trophy in football and Wooden Award in basketball.

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