This year I will once again be breaking down each of the Jets draft picks (and some of the undrafted free agent signings) in detail. Today, we begin with first-round pick Darron Lee, a linebacker from Ohio State. I've been watching game footage to try and assess what he brings to the table.
Lee, 21, is listed at 6-foot-1, 232 pounds and the Jets selected him with the 20th overall pick. He was a two-year starter at weakside linebacker for the Buckeyes. In 28 starts, he recorded 146 tackles, 11 sacks, five passes defensed, three interceptions, three forced fumbles and three touchdowns.
Lee entered the draft after his redshirt sophomore season and solidified his status as a first round pick with a solid performance at the combine, including a 4.47 time in the 40-yard dash.
Lee was a high school quarterback who also played running back, wide receiver and safety and returned kicks. He also competed in track and field in high school.
A lifelong Ohio State fan, Lee was initially recruited as a safety but was injured just two games into his freshman year, causing him to miss the remainder of the 2013 season. He bulked up and studied film while he was out and became the starter at weakside linebacker over the next two years.
He made an instant impact in his first game as a starter in 2014 with a huge hit on Navy's Keenan Reynolds and a 66-yard fumble return for a touchdown. He added another touchdown on a fumble return against Michigan. Lee finished that season with 80 tackles, 6.5 sacks, three passes defensed, a forced fumble and two interceptions. He was the defensive MVP in the College Football Playoff semifinal win over Alabama and the Buckeyes went on to win the national title over Oregon the following week
In 2015, Ohio State had another good year, going 12-1, but missed out on the playoffs when they lost 17-14 to Michigan State. They beat Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl as Lee finished with 66 tackles, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, two passes defensed and an interception, which he returned for a crucial touchdown against Northern Illinois.
After an outstanding display at the combine, Lee had been widely regarded as a mid-to-late first round prospect before being selected by the Jets with the 20th pick, although some experts had dropped him into day two.
Here are my observations from watching footage from Lee's OSU career, divided into categories:
While listed as an outside linebacker, Lee had a versatile role that sometimes required him to line up between the tackles and, at other times, to drop to the outside so he was opposite a receiver in the slot. Per PFF, he played almost 200 snaps in the slot in 2015.
As an example, I charted one game in which Lee played 31 snaps in the slot, 11 inside the tackle box and 31 outside the tackle box (he was at line of scrimmage five times when outside the box).
The Jets have already said that Lee will be an inside linebacker, ultimately replacing Demario Davis as the "Mo" linebacker. As with Davis, this will require Lee to drop to the outside and match up with a back or receiver if they go into the slot, which he has experience doing. Initially, I would expect Erin Henderson to play on running downs and in base packages while Lee competes for time as a nickel linebacker with Bruce Carter.
Whereas in the past it was customary to pair a 250-pound "thumper" with the mike linebacker in a 3-4 system, there's a growing trend for putting a more athletic player there so that they can match up more readily in coverage. Safeties such as Deone Bucannon have been employed in this role over the past few seasons. Obviously this requires defenses to do what they can to keep that player from having to take on blocks or negotiate traffic.
Lee's combine numbers were excellent. As you can see, he did well in speed, explosiveness and agility drills with elite numbers for broad jump, 40-yard dash and 10-yard split. Also, despite being undersized, he has good length.
The 10-yard split in particular is outstanding. Over the past two seasons only one running back has been quicker over the first 10 yards (Keith Marshall). A specific example of that on film was when Will Fuller (who runs a 4.32 40-yard dash) broke away for a long touchdown following a missed assignment by Lee's teammate. Lee diagnosed it and initially closed the gap on Fuller before he accelerated up to full speed and pulled away again. You can see that play here.
Lee's bench press is less impressive, but that's a side effect of his lack of size. He will need to continue to work on his functional strength to have success at the NFL level.
Lee was actually under 200 pounds when he arrived at OSU and reportedly bulked up from 218 in 2014 to 232 in 2015. You can tell the difference in terms of him getting swallowed up by blockers more often in 2014, especially early in the season.
On video, you can see his range in pursuit and his explosiveness as he closes or recovers to the ball carrier. His lack of functional strength is also apparent when a blocker gets into him, but he can display an almost running back-like combination of balance, agility and elusiveness to avoid blockers in space.
Here is where a player can maximize their abilities. No matter how athletic you are, if you misdiagnose a play or are slow to make a read, then you'll arrive later to the ball than a slower player who made a more decisive read. This was arguably what prevented Davis from fulfilling his early promise as a Jet.
So, how does Lee fare in this crucial area? Well, it's a mixed bag. There will be times where he sees the play immediately and exploits his quickness to make a play, but there are other plays where he will hesitate or take false steps. He's so athletic that he can usually recover almost immediately, but at the NFL level where the top quarterbacks will exploit a half-yard of separation, that might not fly. Here's a play where he diagnoses quickly and explodes to the ball:
I will say Lee seems to be very disciplined and when he displays apparent hesitation, it's often because he's ensuring he doesn't vacate a gap prematurely. On some snaps, you'll see him almost tap-dancing on the spot with no apparent objective, but that's perhaps borne out of a desire not to be caught completely out of position, so he'll stay on his toes and be more reactive than proactive.
That might make him a good fit for the Jets system where the likes of Muhammad Wilkerson are adjusting from the reactive nature of the two-gapping assignments in Rex Ryan's system to more attacking one-gap assignments up front.
That would then presumably mean that the linebackers behind them are required to be more reactive rather than attacking downhill as much as they would have under Ryan.
Lee seems to have good vision when keeping plays in front of him although, at times, he will be blindsided by a block he doesn't anticipate as his head is up looking for the ball carrier. Here's an example of that:
As noted, Lee has excellent range and closing speed and also possesses an ability to avoid blockers in space. He also generally takes good angles in pursuit when the play is flowing away from him.
Where he sometimes gets caught out is if a play breaks down and a runner reverses their field. He overran some plays in the open field in situations like that. Here's a rare example of him over-pursuing into the backfield and leaving a gap behind him, although the safety (Vonn Bell) was also at fault at the second level.
Lee's production in the running game was not as high as most of the top linebackers in this year's class, but much of that is a symptom of playing outside the box so often.
Myles Jack, who played a similar role at UCLA, has a similarly low level of run defense production over the past two seasons.
Missed tackles have been an issue for Lee, but not a major one. While he missed 25 tackles over the last two seasons, the footage seems to show that many didn't lead to much in the way of additional yardage as it was often merely a matter of the ball carrier slipping away from Lee's tackle in traffic but still going down almost immediately.
He usually did a solid job of wrapping up and bringing down a ball carrier in space and showed an ability to hit hard in the hole and force some fumbles. He does well here to prevent the back from slipping out of his tackle:
Lee has been pretty productive as a pass rusher and wasn't just employed as a blitzer or amassing pressures by keying the quarterback and reacting underneath to clean up. He also lined up and rushed off the edge, at times. Much of his production comes from being untouched or just too fast for those in pass protections, but he does swim under or spin off a block from time-to-time which you perhaps don't see that often from a non-edge defender.
With his lack of size and strength, Lee can be neutralized pretty easily if the blocker manages to stay in front of him, but his short-area quickness is so good that he has a knack for diverting his path and taking a different route to find a clean path to the quarterback. Here's an example of him finding his way through two blockers for a pressure:
With his comparative lack of size and strength, Lee wasn't much of a factor in these situations, although his quickness was useful in terms of shooting gaps to plug a lane. A few times he was in position to make the stop but the running back's momentum got him to the first down marker anyway.
In some circles, the book on Lee is he is "allergic to contact". That calls to mind a vision of Kerry Rhodes ducking out of a tackle or taking an overly conservative route to the football. However, this might be overblown. Yes, Lee is most effective when he's unblocked and can make a beeline for the ball (example below).
And, yes, his natural instinct in space is often to avoid a blocker by going around him rather than taking on the block and shedding it in time to make the stop. Part of that is perhaps a lack of faith in his own abilities to stack and shed, but also it's a sign that he's doing what works for him. If you have the athleticism to elude a blocker and still get back to the ball carrier before he breaks through to the second level, then you're going to do that most of the time.
However, that's something that won't work as often in the NFL, as he faces stronger and more athletic blockers as well as elite backs that can plant their foot and take a defender out of the play if they modify their pursuit angles.
That's not to say that Lee never takes on a block, but this is certainly something he needs to get better at. You'd like to see him maintain a solid base, extend the arms and come off a block to make a play but he doesn't always do this and perhaps over-relies on
This athletic ability to enable him to try and maintain his balance when getting off a block with improper technique. This hurts him at times, even at the college level, because if he is off-balance when he comes off a block, then this can be where he might miss a tackle or get his pursuit angle wrong to give up contain.
As perhaps to be expected, Lee will do a much better job of this when matched up with a wide receiver instead of a lineman. Hopefully that shows he has some of the basic techniques down and will continue to make improvements as he builds up his functional strength.
For those that doubt his physicality, here's a nice highlight from the 2014 national title game.
There's also a school of thought that Lee is overrated in coverage, perhaps partly due to PFF having him just 74th in their coverage rankings for linebackers.
However, while PFF has a tendency to throw out headline-making numbers like that, they don't necessarily tell the full story, because even they would admit that doesn't mean that the 73 players ahead of him are better in coverage, just that they did their job (which may have been much easier) more efficiently.
Lee's coverage numbers are a product of him being used in coverage a lot more often than most linebackers as he was targeted more than anyone at his position in 2014 and only seven players in this class were targeted more often in 2015. PFF acknowledges he was asked to do a lot in their defense and that he "flashed coverage ability" when lined up as a slot linebacker/safety hybrid.
While he would take some deeper drops, the majority of Lee's coverage assignments at OSU tended to see him picking up a receiver on an initial route and then passing him off to zone coverage behind him and reverting to a backfield key.
What this means is that there were sometimes completions made in that no-man's-land where you can't always tell if he was at fault for vacating his coverage too soon or the key safety behind him was at fault for not coming up to take over soon enough.
Lee also was targeted on a lot of wide-receiver screens, which again is more of a test of his instincts in space and tackling ability than actual coverage skills. Here he makes a decisive read to deal with one well and blow it up.
Naturally, his closing speed and quick first step are assets in coverage. Footwork and technique-wise he could probably do with a bit of seasoning, but coming under Todd Bowles' tutelage is probably a good place for him in that regard.
In terms of ball skills, Lee doesn't get too many chances to make a play on the ball because he's usually playing off. He had just one interception in 2015 and one pass defensed. The interception was a spectacular play against Northern Illinois where he jumped the route on a wide receiver screen. You can see that play here. The pass defensed actually came as he closed quickly on a short pass for an immediate hit to jar the ball loose. Here's a rare play from last year where he did make a play on the ball, although it was a completion:
Lee's overall coverage numbers were good considering he was targeted - or the nearest defender in zone coverage - so often.
Let's look at a couple of big plays that he did give up. On this first one, it's more a failure in terms of his open-field tackling than his coverage skills. This is a situation he usually handles well, but on this occasion Lee hesitates and leaves room for the receiver to tightrope the sideline and turn what should have been a 10-yard gain into a 20-yarder.
Finally, here's a 37-yard gain over the top. Lee gets beaten here but it had to be a perfect pass and was still a tough catch. Also, it's worth noting that not only was this the only completion over 30 yards that Lee gave up in his career and that he expressed visible displeasure at the safety after the play, perhaps suggesting the safety was late getting over.
Lee didn't contribute much on special teams in college, presumably because he was such an integral player on defense. The only thing of note he did on special teams last season was to almost block a punt, but he missed the ball and ended up roughing the kicker. I'd imagine Lee would be expected to do more with the Jets and his skill-set should lend itself well to such a role.
As alluded to above, one concern for Lee would be that he'd be converting from a 4-3 weakside outside linebacker role into a 3-4 weakside inside linebacker role. Playing inside more will put the onus on him to remain disciplined in terms of gap integrity. The fact he played in such a versatile role at Ohio State should serve him well and I think the bigger adjustment for him would be facing NFL competition rather than anything specific he'll be asked to do.
Lee missed most of his freshman season with an injury and was eventually red-shirted. I can't seem to find details of the injury anywhere.
The past two seasons, Lee has played in every game. However, he was carted off with a knee injury after being leg-whipped in the Western Michigan game last year and was playing with a brace on his leg over the next month or so which may have limited him. He was also knocked out of another game by a blind-side block on a return, although he only missed a few plays.
Lee is regarded as a hard-working player who gives good effort and is viewed as a leader. However, he's also pretty cocky and extremely demonstrative on the field, displaying frustration at both himself and his teammates when things go wrong on defense.
There were times when Lee seemed to be jogging at the end of a play when it went away from him, so he didn't always go 100 percent until the whistle. Maybe that's a conditioning issue or maybe it's an effort thing, but I would not expect that to last very long at the pro level. He also seemed to show some signs of fatigue late in games.
If you were familiar with Ohio State's defense, Lee probably isn't the first player who would jump off the screen at you. However, he's also not a player who will jump out at you for the wrong reasons. If Lee can be a solid player that doesn't make major mistakes, he'll be a solid addition to the team.
Maybe Lee has the potential to be more than that, though. His athletic upside is evident and I will happily defer to Bowles and his staff when it comes to whether or not he will fit into the Jets' system.
Perhaps more than any prospect in recent memory, I'm eager to see Lee in the Jets' system, as it's not easy to project how his performance with the Buckeyes defense will translate to a slightly different role within the Jets' more versatile system. It will be exciting to see how the team makes use of his athletic gifts and how well he is able to handle whatever responsibilities they throw at him.
Up next: A look at the Jets' polarizing second round pick, quarterback Christian Hackenberg. While he may have a long way to go, are there signs that he could get there quicker than some are fearing?