- Raj Chudgar
Did Someone Ask For Speed? Darron Lee to the Jets
With the 20th selection in the 2016 Draft, Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles made good on their promise to bring speed to an aging, and somewhat antiquated linebacker core. By selecting Darron Lee, a red-shirt sophomore, out of Ohio State, Macc and Bowles weren’t necessarily drafting for the here and now as much as for the future. Bowles stated as much when he told the Jets beat that Lee would begin his tenure with the Jets behind Erin Henderson in the “Mo” inside linebacker position, and would feature in various nickel sub-packages during the 2016 season.
While some fans were upset over this development, I’d like to think the vast majority of them understand and see the bigger picture here. As NFL offenses continue to borrow more and more from spread concepts, the need for 3-tool linebackers is only going to increase. Those three tools include providing the ability to “clean up” in run-support, cover tight-ends in the open field and running-backs out of the back-field, and finally to blitz from various points in the formation. Lee checks the box in all three categories.
At Ohio State, Lee stepped in as a play making force during his red-shirt freshman year as the Buckeyes advanced to and eventually won the 2015 Sugar Bowl and became National Champions. While they were unable to repeat as National Champions this year, Lee closed his college career with nearly 150 tackles, 27 for a loss, along with 11 sacks, 3 interceptions, and 3 forced fumbles, per sports-reference.com. Lee was the Buckeyes’ strong-side outside linebacker in their base 4-3 defense. He was entrusted to play in space, typically lining up to the outside of the offensive tackle, yet inside of the slot receiver and above 5 yards from the LOS. Lee excelled in this role, displaying a nose for ball carriers, the quick hips necessary to stay with wide receivers down the field, and the capacity to twist and contort his body past blockers en route to taking down quarterbacks.
Still, some have questioned Lee’s ability to succeed in a base 3-4 defense. Jets fans may have some recollection of former Jets linebacker Jonathan Vilma having a tough transition to inside linebacker in Eric Mangini’s 3-4 defense given his lack of size and difficulty in shedding blockers. Lee, who is 6’1 and 234 lbs, has a similar athletic profile to Vilma. Both put up similar combine results, running sub 4.5 40 yard dashes, and performing very well in the broad jump, vert jump, and 20 yard shuttles. While Vilma’s athleticism didn’t prevent him from getting caught in the scrum on run plays, he also didn’t have the luxury of Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Leonard Williams keeping offensive lineman off of him. So while the concerns about Lee’s size are fair, I don’t see this being a big issue. And one could argue that the Jets play in the nickel just as much as the 3-4. Additionally, Lee comes to the Jets at just 21 years old—this makes his dominant play at OSU even more impressive considering he’s still developing, and will likely be able to add more mass to his frame over the next two years if he and the coaching staff deem it prudent.
While Lee might struggle early in a newer, lesser defined and more complex role with the Jets, he should gradually progress into a highly additive piece of the new-age defense Bowles is looking to design. As many have already pointed out, Bowles finally has his own Deone Buchannon—a Swiss army knife of a defender that offenses will need to game plan around. While it’s too early to grade the selection, I have a feeling the days of the Jets being gutted by wheel routes, screen passes, and tight ends are coming to an end with the arrival of Darron Lee.