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Darron Lee had his ups and downs after being the Jets' first round pick last season, but the team seems compelled to proceed with the plan to build around him as one of the cornerstones of the defense. Entering his first season, everyone knew that Lee was a terrific athlete, but he still had to prove he had the instincts to play inside linebacker in a pro-style defense.
Preseason Stats: Four games, no starts, seven tackles, one sack
Regular Season Stats: 13 games, 9 starts, 73 tackles, one sack, three passes defensed, no forced fumbles.
Projected Role: Projected starter at weakside inside linebacker
Lee started off his rookie year in a rotation with Erin Henderson, as the pair split the workload alongside the ever-present David Harris. Prior to the bye week, Lee started just three games, missing three with a sprained ankle, but still played the majority of the snaps. After the bye, Henderson left the team and Lee started every game.
Despite racking up 73 tackles, Lee had an uneven year. He didn't make many impact plays and was error-prone at times. They were arguably better off with Henderson in the lineup, because in the three games Lee missed, they won the first two and then only lost the third on a late kickoff return. Developing him into a full-time contributor was obviously a major priority, though.
The Jets employed Lee mostly in coverage early in the year and an early-season assignment against the Seahawks gave a good indication of how far he had to go in that area. Veteran tight end Jimmie Graham had a 100-yard day, with three big catches over Lee, who was in a good position each time but unable to make a play on the ball.
Lee gave up almost 500 yards in coverage in 2016, but over half of those yards were given up in the first five games. However, in the last game of the season, Lee showed that he still has plenty of room for growth, when he left a receiver wide open near the goal line and only an errant EJ Manuel throw saved the Jets from what should have been an easy touchdown.
According to Pro Football Focus, Lee led all rookie linebackers in tackle efficiency, but PFF actually had him ranked in last place based on their overall grades. Tackle efficiency measures how often a player missed a tackle, so while Lee was obviously consistent in that area, it doesn't measure how impactful the tackle was or whether the ball-carrier was able to drive for extra yardage. Lee was also blocked out of a lot of plays in addition to giving up a lot of plays in coverage.
As a pass-rusher, Lee had half a sack twice during the regular season and one sack in the preseason. He typically blitzed a handful of times per game on average but dropped into coverage over 80 percent of the time.
Ultimately, the key to Lee's success will probably hinge on his ability to improve his play recognition. While some of this will hopefully come naturally with experience, he's going to have to dedicate himself to a lot of film study, especially since the Jets may be planning to get him to wear the headset and call defensive signals. That was something he did briefly towards the end of last season.
There are some concerns over Lee's maturity, including an offseason incident the league is currently investigating. The Jets will hope that Lee will respond to these concerns by displaying a positive attitude and that this will be reflected in his on-field consistency.
Outlook: Despite his struggles last year, Lee showed promise at times. The team is obviously hopeful that he'll make a jump in his second season, although they'll have to hope he can develop at the same kind of pace with Demario Davis as his mentor instead of Harris.
Lee's performance probably won't make or break the Jets' season, so they can afford to give him more responsibilities and see how he responds. While some of his inconsistent play might be seen as alarming, it's worth remembering that the last two linebackers drafted high by the Jets -- Harris and Jonathan Vilma -- both had similar struggles throughout their first couple of seasons.