The problem with the pre-draft furor that hits every March and April is the tendency to put players in a box. In 2016, the draft coverage was rife with such loosely-substantiated takes. Jared Goff, the No. 1 pick, was viewed largely as the quarterback that could contribute right away, due to his track record as a four-year starter in college. On the flip side, the No. 2 pick, QB Carson Wentz, was seen as the player that needed some time to develop but had a higher ceiling than Goff due to his playing background (FCS) and arm strength, respectively. These were surface-level judgements, so it comes as no surprise that the exact opposite ended up being true: Wentz found relative success right away, while Goff struggled early on, but was also required to carry more of a load for his team’s offense, which could suggest higher upside. However, this was true for more than just quarterbacks. Darron Lee, by virtue of his athletic profile, was instantly typecast as the next Ryan Shazier: a fast, rangy inside linebacker (from Ohio State, no less) that can cover the middle of the field and efficiently shoot gaps to get tackles behind the line.
On the surface, this was accurate. Lee ran a 4.47 40-yard dash at the combine–fast even by defensive back standards–and finished with an 11’1” broad jump, 6” short of Jamie Collins’ record, largely fitting Shazier’s profile. However, the problem with this comparison is that Darron Lee was not Ryan Shazier, and had never played like Ryan Shazier. At Ohio State, Lee was almost exclusively an outside linebacker. Usually lining up on the field side, across from tight ends, Lee was also sometimes split into the slot, and occasionally saw time on the edge in nickel packages. The one place that he almost never played was on the interior. In essence, Lee’s role in the Ohio State defense was to be an edge defender with range. He was tasked with almost single-handedly defending the option/pitch play, and tracking down off-tackle runs, end-arounds, and wide receiver screens. In the open field, where he did not have to attack blocks head on, Lee was able to use his tremendous closing speed to find the ball and snuff the play out, while also adding some coverage ability to boot.
Darron Lee: The Prospect
With so much of the college offense built around running the option, Lee’s role made him the X-factor for Ohio State, and played an enormous part in Ohio State’s dominant win over Michigan in 2014. Consisting of a running quarterback in Devin Gardner, a future NFL fullback in Joe Kerridge, and a solid tailback in Justice Hayes, Michigan’s strength was its running game. Lee, however, made it almost impossible for any of them to get to the edge. On the very first defensive play, Lee shed his block, forced a cutback, and nabbed the ball carrier with a shoestring tackle. Later in the first quarter, he sniffed out a screen pass to Devin Funchess and closed on him for a minimal gain. Even on plays when he seemed to be beaten, Lee was still able to make an impact with his athleticism. Early in the fourth quarter, Lee manhandled TE Jake Butt off the edge and stifled an end-around run. Although he missed his tackle attempt, Lee’s diagnosis and penetration should get most of the credit for the run stop regardless. On a different play, Lee completely missed Kerridge sliding into the flat, but was able to make another stop, closing with an efficient angle and prevent the first down after the catch.
This was not just one game, however. In each game that I watched, Lee navigated the second level, tracked the ball, and was next to impossible to beat to the sideline. Against Michigan State in 2015, Lee got outside leverage on the fullback, forcing RB L.J. Scott to cut inside and run directly into LB Raekwon McMillan. Earlier in that game, Lee diagnosed a quarterback run and delivered a tone setting hit on QB Tyler O’Connor. Against Hawaii, it was much of the same, with Lee using his speed to force multiple end-arounds into inside defenders. However, Lee was far more than just a simple off-ball edge defender. Staying step-for-step with tight ends, and even some wide receivers, he held his own in man coverage. He also showed the ability to be a game breaker, making a number of impact plays blitzing off the edge . In the aforementioned Michigan game, Lee drove Gardner into pressure, and then took Gardner’s fumble to the house to put the game on ice. In another game, against Hawaii, Lee got to QB Max Wittek multiple times on blitzes, including one that resulted in a forced fumble. As Bleacher Report columnist Matt Miller put it, “What does Darron Lee do well? Play football.”
Of course, this is not to say that Lee was a flawless prospect. While he was solid defending college tight ends and slot receivers one-on-one, he was far from perfect. His hips are not nearly as smooth as those of a DB, so he would occasionally lose track of receivers on in-breaking routes. He was also extremely raw in zone coverage. Whether covering in the flats or in the middle of the field, Lee had a tendency to sit down in the middle of the zone and keep his eyes fixated on the quarterback. Doing this, rather than locking onto a receiver and picking that receiver up, allowed him to fall victim to numerous preventable completions. Although Lee managed to limit the effects of this by quickly closing on receivers after the catch, it was still alarming to see. Lee also had a propensity to be overly reactive. He routinely fell for fakes, whether they were play action fakes, pump fakes, or eye fakes. Against Hawaii, he lost his receiver after being looked off by Max Wittek, and against Michigan, he allowed an easy first down completion after fully committing to Gardner on a rollout and leaving his man wide open behind him. In addition to all this, Lee also looked inexperienced when reading inside runs. Although he looked generally decisive and efficient playing on the outside, in the few cases when he did move inside, he looked lost. Against Michigan, the two big runs that Lee allowed to bounce to the outside happened when he was between the tackles and overcommitted to shooting a gap, pulling him out of positions.
This is why, based off of his tape, Lee had a clear role going into the NFL. He was a 4-3 outside linebacker–an off-ball edge defender. Though he didn’t have the instincts or post-snap processing ability to play on the inside, he showed the ability to read an option play or a screen and close on a ball carrier. As extra value, he regularly matched up one-on-one with tight ends and slower receivers, and looked serviceable. Players like this have real value in the NFL: Jamie Collins was a Pro Bowler playing this way for the Patriots, and looks to do the same with the Browns. Fellow Brown Jabrill Peppers should have a similar role, but as a box safety. So, when the Jets drafted Lee at No. 20 overall, I was excited. Though they had lost a valuable run defender in DT Damon Harrison, they still had fellow defensive tackles Leonard Williams, Sheldon Richardson, and Muhammad Wilkerson to plug the middle, and, if they decided to play Lee away from the MIKE position, they would still have one of the most ferocious run defenses in the league. Instead, however, the Jets decided to gamble on Lee’s upside. Seeing the explosive athletic data, the Jets played Lee almost exclusively as a 3-4 inside linebacker, his archetypal position, and, rightfully, he struggled.
— NYJFTV (@NYJFTV) August 8, 2017
What Went Wrong?
Simply put, Lee doesn’t read offenses like an inside linebacker. An inside linebacker’s job is to cover in intermediate zones, take on blockers, and read the offensive line to diagnose which gap to shoot. Unfortunately for Lee, he struggled with all of those tasks last season. Against the 49ers, in likely his worst game of the year, Lee made it abundantly clear that the Jets were playing him out of position. On his first defensive snap, Lee was unable to find Carlos Hyde behind the line, leading to a late reaction and a missed tackle. Later in the first quarter, he misread another run play and got stonewalled by a block, leading to a big gain by Hyde. Over the course of that one game, I counted seven separate plays during which Lee either misread an off-tackle cut or was late to recognize where the run was going, allowing Hyde to get by. Another issue with Lee is that at just 230 pounds, Lee was able to navigate through blocks going from sideline-to-sideline, but he struggled taking on linemen head on, making him a liability on running plays up the gut. However, the struggles didn’t just occur in the run game. While he stayed with tight ends Vance McDonald, Blake Bell, and Garrett Celek with relative success in man coverage, Lee’s play in zone was extremely shaky. Early in the game, Lee not only got caught up by Kaepernick’s eye fake, but also failed to pick up WR Quinton Patton on a slant. This put him in bad position to make the tackle, and led to a long gain. Later in the first quarter, Lee fixated his eyes on Kaepernick and flat-out missed Blake Bell, who had surreptitiously snuck behind him on a post route, leading to his first of two benchings on the day.
This propensity to misread the offensive play and inexperience in zone coverage was only exacerbated when he faced the league’s smartest quarterback, Tom Brady, in Week 16. During the Patriots’ first offensive drive, Brady forced Lee into two different miscues. First, Brady drew Lee out of position with a look-off, opening up a crossing route. Then, less than a minute later, Brady drew Lee into the left flat to chase after WR Julian Edelman with a crisp ball fake, despite the fact that Edelman was already being covered by Calvin Pryor. This vacated the middle and allowed for an easy completion to TE Martellus Bennett. Later on, at the very beginning of the third quarter, Lee was drawn all the way in and out of position by a hard play action fake. Brady was not the only Patriots’ quarterback to victimize Lee, either. In the fourth quarter, backup Jimmy Garoppolo caught Lee on another play action fake, freeing Edelman on a slant. Although it is easy to lose the mental battle to quarterbacks like Brady, Kaepernick, and Garoppolo, who are all fairly adept at look-offs and play action, for it to happen so frequently is startling. With the inside linebacker position requiring so much in the way of reading run plays and playing instinctively, Lee was obviously not well-suited for his rookie role.
This is not to say that Lee’s entire rookie season was a waste. Even through his struggles, Lee made multiple tangible leaps from his college tape. Most notably, he went from solid to near-excellent in man coverage. Though he was still beaten occasionally, Lee’s hips were significantly more fluid, and he was able to regularly stay step-for-step with tight ends like Blake Bell, Travis Kelce, and Demetrius Harris. Lee was also as ferocious as advertised against end-arounds, off-tackle runs, and screen passes. Early against the Chiefs, Lee actually outran speedy WR Tyreek Hill to the edge and swallowed him for a loss. Against the Patriots, it was much of the same, as Lee dominated FB James Develin on the edge, forcing cutbacks from both Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount. Later in the Chiefs game, Lee got fooled on play action but still recovered and chased down WR Jeremy Maclin for a minimal game. Lee also showed that same flashy ability as a blitzer, at one point bending around Pro Bowl-caliber RT Mitchell Schwartz to get pressure on Chiefs QB Alex Smith. Furthermore, Lee’s play diagnosing runs up the middle and shedding blocks also seemed to improve at the end of the year. Against the Patriots, Lee shed G Joe Thuney’s block and burst into the backfield to stifle Dion Lewis.
Ultimately, however, plays like that were few and far between. Forced to play more in zone coverage than man, and to shoot gaps up the middle rather than to set the edge on stretch plays, Lee struggled in what was a generally unfamiliar and unfair situation for him. The numbers back it up, too. According to Pro Football Focus, Lee recorded a run stop percentage of 5.7%, which was bottom-ten among qualifying inside linebackers and a horrid figure, even by rookie standards. If the Jets realize their mistake and employ Lee at his true position, he has the potential to be a legitimate superstar, much like Jamie Collins is in Cleveland and S Harrison Smith is in Minnesota. With Demario Davis, who was supposed to be the Browns’ MIKE linebacker before being traded, back in New York, there is a chance that Lee sees more of an outside role. However, until that switch happens, Lee will realistically only be a mediocre inside linebacker. Though he is a tremendous athlete that made strides as a rookie and plays with a great deal of effort, his frame is very thin for an interior player, and football instincts are extremely hard to fix. Unless Lee is given the role that he fits in New York, look for him to have a Jake Arrieta-esque “awakening” with a team that finally figures out how to use him correctly.