With the 20th pick in the 2016 NFL draft, Mike Maccagnan made Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee the first selection of his second draft. Just what have the New York Jets added with Darron Lee for 2016, and what kind of player can he be a few years down the line?
The Numbers: 40 Yard Dash: 4.47 seconds, 20 Yard Shuttle: 4.20 seconds, 3 Cone Drill: 7.12 seconds, Vertical Jump: 35.5 inches, Broad Jump: 133.0 inches, Bench Press: 17 reps
- 2014: 15 games, 80 total tackles, 16 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 2 INT, 3 PD, 1 FF
- 2015: 13 games, 66 total tackles, 11 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 1 INT, 2 PD, 2 FF
Range, versatility and playmaking ability. Lee’s been a linebacker for just three seasons (a high school QB and CB), but he hit the ground running as a redshirt freshman to be a key piece of a National Championship winning defense.
Lee caught attention at the combine, but this is no pure workout warrior. Put on an Ohio State game and Lee is a live wire who jumps off the screen as an explosive player with solid football instincts. He has that right balance of high energy without being over-the-top reckless.
Lee’s an aggressive player. He trusts what he sees and isn’t afraid to make a play on the ball in coverage. For a linebacker, his ball instincts in coverage are impressive.
There are some questions about where Lee will actually play for the Jets, given he’s undersized for the traditional inside linebacker in a 3-4. The more apt question though is where can’t he play? On any given series, Lee has lined up in as many as three or four positions. He’s commonly seen in a traditional inside LB role, covered over slot receivers, lining up at strong safety depth, at outside linebacker, and even sometimes split completely out wide. There’s talk of Lee projected into the “Deone Bucannon role” in Bowles’ defense, and this is something he was basically already doing at Ohio State.
Lee overall was a huge weapon for the Buckeyes on third down. He’s more than just a rangy defender in coverage as his 11 sacks in two years attests to. In a defensive scheme that often looks to manufacture pressure with blitz packages, Lee can be a real wildcard. It’s not just the burst to finish when unblocked, he has shown some pass rush potential as well.
Where Lee Must Improve
He’s undersized as a traditional 3-4 inside linebacker, and while the league is moving away from the importance of these players, he still struggles in traffic and can be moved back by powerful runners. Take the Michigan State game last year for example. Given the Spartans started a backup due to a Connor Cook injury, their offensive game plan relied mostly on a running game and had Lee playing inside as a traditional LB more than usual. This was overall his quietest game of the season, and he occasionally was engulfed and pushed out of the play. The good news is that in other instances he does show a willingness to battle inside the box, so I don’t think it’s an issue of toughness.
Despite off-the-charts athleticism and a background as a corner, he’s still honing his coverage abilities. He’s still getting a feel on how to handle zone coverage in particular, as he needs to do a better job of sensing receivers around him.
Lee is generally a solid tackler and can occasionally make the big hit, but he isn’t a consistently powerful one. His tackles don’t often stop momentum instantly and he can give up more ground before he brings down the ball carrier. And while he’s not a consistently overaggressive player, over-pursuing the ball carrier and taking himself out of the play are issues sometimes as well. The clip below is an overall good play, but he nearly runs himself out of the play if not for a good shoestring tackle.
The biggest issue in the short term is that while the league is clearly pass-first and the Jets under Bowles are being built to defend offenses as such, Lee has no obvious role and would probably even be targeted against run-heavy teams.
Where Lee Fits
In the short term, Lee is a possible day one starter in the Jets’ nickel base defense and a multi-faceted third down weapon. Depending on the game scenario, Lee could line up in nearly any position in the back seven. In the Jets’ nickel base defense he’s an excellent pairing with David Harris, either lining up in the box or lining up across from a slot receiver. On third down packages he can be a real difference maker. In addition to slot CB or SS deployments, he can be placed on the outside, hoping one of the monsters up front can draw the attention of a second lineman for just enough time for Lee to blaze by. This is something Ohio State loved to do to great effect by pairing Lee and third overall pick Joey Bosa on the same side.
Long term, Lee could become one of the premier playmaking inside linebackers in the NFL. With his youth (only just 21), athleticism, how quickly he has picked up the linebacker position and his natural feel for it, the upside for Lee really is tremendous. He has flashed some pass rush ability, and with refinement he could be one of the NFL’s most dangerous third down chess pieces.
Lee didn’t get a lot of buzz for the Jets leading up to the draft, but that’s not to say this was an underwhelming pick. A lot of mock drafts had Lee going to the Falcons as his worst case scenario, and the pre-draft focus went to bigger need positions – players like Paxton Lynch, Taylor Decker, and Noah Spence. Make no mistake though, Lee was a solid value pick and is a player that addresses a long-term problem on the Jets defense. Bowles, typically one to address press conference questions with diplomatic non-answers, was candid about one area of need for this offseason – getting faster on defense. Outside of Myles Jack and his uncertain medical situation, you couldn’t draw up a more fitting prospect to address this area than Darron Lee.
He’s not as well-rounded in coverage as you would think at this point given his label as a LB/DB hybrid, and as an in-the-box run defender he’s not going to have an immediate impact. But at just 21 years old and just three years as a linebacker, Lee has shown incredible progress already and has a lot of room further to grow. Expect Lee as a rookie to be a cleverly schemed problem for opposing offenses on third down, with the potential to be one of the premier playmaking off-the-ball linebackers in the league down the line.
Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com