As the Jets get close to training camp, I am going to examine the roster and give you my top 25 players. Each weekday, we will reveal another person on the list, leading right into camp. I am not including rookies on this list because I do not feel it is possible to fully evaluate them before they play a game.
No. 10: Darron Lee
Last year’s ranking: Unranked, rookie
How acquired: Selected in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft
Years left on contract: 3 (team has an option for a fourth year)
2017 Salary Cap figure: $2.3 million
Looking back at 2016: Lee entered his rookie season as a backup behind David Harris and Erin Henderson, but eventually got into the starting lineup, making nine starts at inside linebacker.
Lee did not have a terrible rookie season, but it is fair to call it disappointing. He did not have the impact you expect a first-round pick to have. Still, the jury is out on Lee because he did show some promise and was dealing with an ankle injury for most of the season.
Pro Football Focus ranked Lee 84th out of 87 linebackers they graded. He was 63rd in run defense, 75th in coverage and 46th in pass rushing. He finished the year with one sack and two passes defensed.
At 230 pounds, Lee is small for a linebacker. That lack of size was supposed to be made up for by his speed and ability to cover tight ends and even wide receivers. But Lee’s coverage skills were not great. He was abused by some of the better tight ends the Jets played. He also overran a lot of plays or took a misstep that allowed runners to gain an extra yard.
Lee sprained his ankle in Week 6 against the Cardinals and missed the next three games. The injury lingered and may have affected Lee’s play late in the year. Lee told the team’s website he “played on one leg” last year.
Outlook for 2017: Lee needs to make a big leap in Year 2 for the Jets, who are counting on him being part of the core of the team going forward.
An offseason incident at a concert was troubling. Lee allegedly had a heated argument with a woman, whom coach Todd Bowles identified as Lee’s girlfriend. The argument was serious enough that teammate Leonard Williams got between the two and literally removed Lee from the situation, lifting him off the ground. A video of Williams lifting Lee went viral, and the NFL is now investigating what happened. It would be surprising if the NFL took action against Lee unless there is more to the altercation than is currently known.
Coming out of Ohio State, Lee was known for his speed and viewed as a hybrid safety/linebacker. I expected Bowles to be creative in how he deployed Lee, but he basically had him play the traditional linebacker role as a rookie. Maybe Bowles will move Lee around more this year, presuming Lee is more comfortable in the defense.
Teams are searching for hybrid defenders who can cover the faster tight ends they are seeing but also are big enough to stop the run. Lee could be that guy for the Jets, but he needs to make major strides this year.
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