The New York Jets have been hit or miss with their first-round defensive draftees, but believe LB Darron Lee can fit into the former category.
Since 2007, every opening draft pick of the New York Jets has been dedicated to defense, with two USC quarterback exceptions in 2009 and 2017. Hit or miss in nature, a majority of these selections either never fulfilled their potential or moved on from New York for greener, non-Jets, pastures.
This middling phenomenon has been perhaps best personified by the tenure of linebacker Darron Lee.
Lee, 23, was the 20th name called in 2016’s selection proceedings. Flashes of his brilliance displayed at Ohio State has been on display in his first two seasons, notably in last season’s opening day festivities in Buffalo, where he had seven tackles and a sack. He’d conclude the year with 67 tackles, good for second on the team, but another color followed him all season: yellow.
After emerging from his rookie year relatively clean with two penalties, Lee tripled that number to six in 2017, four of them being costly 15-yard infractions. Lee’s errors were costly not just to the Jets, but to his wallet as well. An October loss against Miami prompted a $45,000 donation to the league for two major penalties, one of which kept a Dolphins scoring drive alive.
A brutal sophomore season ended with a December benching prior to a game against Kansas City, dropping Lee to 86th in Pro Football Focus’ linebacker ratings.
Entering a crucial third season, Lee is one of many Jets under the microscope coming into 2018, especially considering the fact that head coach Todd Bowles has called upon him to be the primary defensive play-caller, per the New York Daily News‘ Manish Mehta.
In a series counting down impactful Jets players heading into 2018, Mehta checked in with Jets linebackers coach Mike Caldwell about Lee’s progress. An 11-year NFL veteran, Caldwell is trusting Lee in his new role.
“He can be as good as he wants to be,” linebackers coach Mike Caldwell told Mehta. “He has all the tools. He’s getting better by being able to see things faster. His eyes are better. He’s just learning the game. Coming from college, it took him a while to understand the professional game. He’s done a good job of finding his niche.”
Bowles, likewise entering 2018 on a hot seat, expects big things from Lee, especially with the departure of veteran leader Demario Davis to New Orleans. Speaking on Adam Schefter’s podcast in April, the head coach mentioned that Lee will be the biggest cog in the Jets’ defensive machine.
“My biggest thing will be Darron Lee, the maturation of him coming in. I thought he had an outstanding year last year in the second half,” Bowles said. “We lost Demario, a vocal leader, and Darron started coming into his own last year. That’s the next step for him, obviously, it’s the next step for him on a young team … From a vocal standpoint and a leadership standpoint, I think he’s ready to take the next step.”
Lee commented on his readiness earlier this spring to Mehta.
“I’m a lot more comfortable,” Lee said. “I know the insides and outs of this playbook. That stepping stone of learning and knowing what you got to do is pretty much over with. I’m comfortable.”
The Jets report to training camp on July 26.