After the Jets' pick of Darron Lee Thursday night, I found a mixed reaction from fans. They were either 1) blindsided by taking an interior linebacker in the first round, 2) willing to give the pick some room to breathe or 3) hopping mad the Jets didn't take a quarterback.
I am going to leave the quarterback thing aside for the most part, but I will say a few things. It is clear the Jets front office, coaching staff and scouting departments didn't have enough critical mass of consensus to believe that Paxton Lynch was worth a first round grade and I don't disagree with their assessment.
I am a big proponent of heuristics, which in this case means if the whole of the Jets organization isn't sold on bringing in Lynch with the 20th pick, what reason should I have to think that I know better? I know for a fact that I do not know better.
To be clear, I have no problem going all-in on a first round quarterback if he's the right player, but to burn a first round pick on a player who has clear talent gaps, legitimate concerns about his decision-making, some painful windup mechanics and then some choice comments about his defense on top of all that? In Denver, Elway has earned himself lots of leeway and he has a fully developed offense and defense he can put around Lynch in the next 18 months. But from what I've watched, I still don't think Lynch will pan out -- even in an optimal situation with the Broncos.
But enough about that, here's what is on my brain concerning Darron Lee...
Linebacker done changed - Mike Tanier wrote that "Lee is the kind of linebacker who can play every down in the modern NFL" and he's exactly right. For head coach Todd Bowles, weakside interior linebackers in a defense that can run nickel or dime packages as base is going to be a three-down player. 15 years ago Lee would be considered a tweener, but he stepped in early as a linebacker at Ohio State after converting from safety and he's never looked back. Lee can do all the things the Jets need someone to do well in the heart of their defense. He can play some light coverage, will be a force in Bowles' interior blitz-heavy scheme and with his speed he will be a beast in backside pursuit -- an area of severe pain for the Jets for almost 10 years.
Oh the devaluation! - Gone are the days of massive 250 pound thumpers who could smash the run for three downs. Because of this, there's been a lot of half-baked analysis over the last five years about the devaluation of running backs and linebackers. That is partially true, but what isn't discussed is the value of "foundational" three-down linebackers or running backs has increased. Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley have just proven than at running back.
What most observers haven't caught up to yet is -- as mentioned above - the role and requirements of linebackers have changed and the distinctions between defensive backs and off-ball linebackers have been blurred. What I can see is as the pass to run ratio continues to accelerate, players like Lee will become more valuable.
Double A Gap Goodness - For anyone who watched the 2015 Jets, it was abundantly clear that Bowles loves him some Double-A gap blitzes. Why is the Double A successful? Because it is the straightest line to the quarterback. Double A's also pair perfectly with a coach who believes his defense starts with boundary cornerbacks who can play man coverage, thereby allowing the other nine players to mix and match at will. Some may be concerned that Lee has too much straight line speed, but that seems to pair perfectly with the defensive line he'll get to work with in New York.
It Can't All Be Roses, Though … Right? -- This is all to say that Lee is not without concerns. While Bowles said Lee's weight at 232 is fine, I bet Lee could benefit from a full offseason strength program to dial in his weight and speed to match what the Jets will require of him. Also, Bowles made it known that he believes Lee has technique to work on, and he's right. Footwork and leverage are areas where Lee must improve. Lee also has made analysts question whether or not he has that "dog" mentality that scouts love to see from linebackers. Part of that might be that he's still young and a relatively recent conversion from safety, but expect there to be lots of talk about Lee's intensity in the coming months until we see him on the field.
As best I can tell, Lee doesn't shy away from contact, but does seem to lean a little too much on his athleticism. Can he be more football player than athlete in the NFL? That's the big question I have. The best breakdowns of Lee I can find come from Matt Waldman and Jene Bramel on Rookie Scouting Portfolio. This is the definitive critique of Lee's game; Waldman and Bramel take an excellent and exhaustive look at Lee's game as he transitions to the NFL.