We've forgotten about Marqise Lee.
A decade ago—maybe even half of that—forgetting about a player from the University of Southern California Trojans, especially a receiver, would've seemed like a fantasy. For years, especially those spanning the Pete Carroll regime, the Trojans have dominated the draft landscape.
Once upon a time, it seemed as if even the later rounds of the draft were littered with former Trojans who were simply given the benefit of the doubt over their peers.
Yet, we've forgotten about Lee, even though he was a top-receiver name just a year ago. This was a player some thought could be a candidate for the No. 1 player overall, just a few years ago. It isn't a story about how the mighty have fallen (well, maybe a little), but more about how this strong 2014 draft class has raised the bar for talented prospects across the board, Lee included.
If 2014 offers anything to NFL teams, it's wide receivers. No matter what kind of receiver a team needs or when it plans on targeting one, it's almost assured that someone will be on the board who suits that team's particular fancy.
Lee, a lock first-rounder in almost any other year, will likely go toward the end of the first or top of the second this May. It all depends on how the second tier of receivers shakes out and how soon teams pull the trigger on that top tier of Sammy Watkins (Clemson), Mike Evans (Texas A&M) and Odell Beckham Jr. (LSU).
Once he finds a team, however, that club will find itself with an immediate playmaker who can win matchups early on in his NFL career.
Understanding Lee's Role in USC's Offense...and NFL Counterparts
USC has undergone a lot of upheaval in recent years, but it's worth noting the exact same thing that used to make Trojans offensive prospects so enticing—the Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian pro-style offense—is exactly what Lee has been simmering in the past few seasons (with doses from Kennedy Polamalu and Clay Helton).
The way most people start describing Kiffin's offense is "simple." When Kiffin and Sarkisian were handed the offensive reins from Norm Chow at USC a long time ago, the mandate from Carroll was simplicity across the board—zone blocking in the run game, zone (or gap) blocking in the passing game, packaged passing concepts and never more than a 5-star freshman passer from some football factory could handle.
Kiffin and Sarkisian were big proponents of those packaged plays that can increase a playbook or play-calling sheet almost exponentially if the players understand the system that is being installed. I've often described it as being more like remedial algebra (if "A" equals "B," then...) rather than the complex arithmetic done by guys like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on Sundays.
Good offense has always been about deceptive simplicity — the clearest path to success is to make things as simple as possible for your players while also keeping defenses off-balance. It’s a difficult recipe, as an offense that is too simple can get dissected, analyzed, and shut down by a savvy defense, but a team that tries to do too many things will master none of them.
Packaged plays solve the quandary by combining simple plays all the players can execute in such a way that — if the quarterback makes the right decision — the offense always has the advantage, because no defender can be in two places at once.
While packages are far bigger than this, a really good example that most fans know is the shadow route that almost every team will throw to a capable wide receiver when there's off coverage. No matter what the play is called in the huddle, the quarterback and receiver nod to each other, and the passer completes an ultra-quick strike and allows the receiver to run after the catch.
Spread and Air Raid systems use packaged plays all the time, sometimes almost exclusively, but Lee has been playing in packaged concepts from the West Coast passing system, which is a unique bubble that almost no players get to operate in.
Although USC has been inept at the quarterback position in recent years, this might be one of the more perfect examples of a pro-style offensive system (at least for a wideout) that the NFL has seen. For a receiver to understand even remedial West Coast passing is becoming a rarity for college prospects. A receiver knowing the concepts of packaged plays—a growing trend on Sundays—is an added bonus.
Specifically to Lee's role, it's important to reiterate the draft scouting maxim: Just because a guy didn't do something doesn't mean he can't.
In the context of a decade of scouting collegiate wide receivers and having watched every snap of Lee's college career, it's clear that he's a polished route-runner (by college standards) and can run every route of the tree.
However, a sneaky little trend that's been creeping up in some draft reports on him is that he didn't run a lot of routes at USC. For the last year, that is largely true, as the USC offense was almost entirely focused on simply trying to will the ball into the receiver's hands. That often meant Lee was running screens and slants rather than the more complex routes he was doing as a younger player with Matt Barkley at the helm in 2011 and 2012.
For the vast majority of college football receivers, the route concepts get more complex as the years go on. For Lee, because of the Trojans' QB situation, the opposite was true.
No scout in his right mind blames Lee for that.
So, Lee is a sharp route-runner in the West Coast scheme who can run any slant, hitch, screen, quick out or play-action crossing route (mirror) that an NFL coach might want. While a receiver coming from a more collegiate-style scheme might know some of those, the diversification of Lee's college career and the West Coast nature of his offense gives him the upper hand.
How Lee's Strengths and Weaknesses Fit in With NFL Trends
According to most out there, Lee's biggest weakness, by far, is his hands.
According to Greg Peshek of Rotoworld, not only did Lee benefit from a high percentage of shorter routes that we mentioned before, but his "drop rate" was over 12 percent; compare that to about 4 percent for Watkins and Evans.
For Lee, we can look at that one of two ways: Either his hands stink or something else must have been a factor.
Now, I won't paint a rosy-colored picture that Lee has awesome hands and it was all his quarterback's fault, but there is always context to be had when it comes to metrics and pure statistical measurements.
In comparison, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) measured the drop rate of the top 43 receivers in the NFL. Lee's 12 percent would rank him around the late 30s. Right around there with a 12 percent drop rate himself, Denver Broncos receiver Wes Welker, who has a similar "catch first and worry about defenders later" bent to his game.
The context here, is volume, yes, but also the reckless abandon in which a receiver like Lee (and Welker) often get the ball delivered to them. Lee doesn't get the benefit of only getting the ball when he has a cushion. Frankly, it doesn't matter who's covering Lee or how much space they're giving him; there's a good chance the ball is coming his way.
The quarterback is instructed to just get the ball there and let Lee figure out what to do next. Many times, that meant getting the ball and trying to run before the catch was secured (generally a no-no, but almost built into the USC playbook the past season) or catching the ball with a defender planted right in Lee's proverbial front yard.
I appreciate Peshek's metrics immensely, but the argument against Lee's catching ability needs to be more nuanced than the bare numbers.
Lee plucks the ball—even over the middle—more than his college peers and has an innate ability to "go get the ball" when it's in the air, whether it's tracking it over his shoulder or adjusting to a poorly thrown deep pass.
Those are the things scouts look for when they're attempting to assess a receiver's hands, and the ability to do those things often supersedes unforced mental errors leading to "stupid" drops and plays where the defense was able to force a drop because of strong coverage.
Again, this is not to imply that Lee has magnificent hands, but rather that much ado has been made out of a weakness that isn't so weak after all. And it's worth noting that in a shallower class of receivers, it might not stick out so much.
In today's NFL, the strengths to Lee's game—his polish, his ability after the catch, his short-area burst and return-level athleticism—are far more in line for what teams are increasingly looking for out of their receivers than his weaknesses would be a detriment.
In many ways, Terrell Owens was a precursor to today's receivers where his drops—almost always because of silly unforced mental errors—were excused because of the other things he brought to the game. While Lee is certainly not Owens, the NFL has moved forward where receivers like Welker, Brandon Marshall, Stevie Johnson and even Calvin Johnson can be excused for their drops because there's so much more they can do.
As mentioned, Lee's experience in the USC offense has prepared him for the NFL, but his style of play is even more pro-style than the X's and O's he's accustomed to running.
A Strong Draft Class and Reduced Expectations Will Benefit Lee Immensely
To this point our discussion has focused—and rightly so—that the strength and depth of the draft class has pushed Lee down the board and highlighted some of his deficiencies into more visible weaknesses.
The glass-half-full version of that same narrative is that Lee is more likely to end up on a team where he is not expected to be the No. 1 receiver and is able to slide into a role on an already composed NFL offense.
Bleacher Report's Alex Miglio has Lee falling to the Detroit Lions in the second round.
NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah has him going to the New Orleans Saints in the first.
CBS Sports' Pete Prisco is sending him to the San Francisco 49ers, also in the first.
There are certainly other options and less elite offenses for Lee—the Kansas City Chiefs and Carolina Panthers both come to mind—so there's always a chance that he is expected to be a big piece of an offense right away in his rookie season.
Still, the expectations for a low first-rounder or a second-rounder are less than those for a high pick. Hypothetically speaking, if Watkins is drafted in the first couple of picks and Lee is drafted in the second round, the two could have almost the same production and Lee would be heralded while Watkins was derided as a disappointment.
I wholeheartedly disagree with Ray Farmer, who has spent years as an NFL scout, and has the perfect scout's mentality. For a scout, draft mistakes are a private thing. While no one wants to be wrong, a scout who bangs on the table for a guy and misses rarely sees ramifications.
For scouts in the NFL, it is far more about connections and network than hits and misses.
Yet, when those mistakes become more public—like those of a general manager, as Farmer now is—the draft status of a guy starts to matter as to the expectations and perception of that player. We'd all love to analyze guys in the proverbial vacuum, but it just doesn't exist.
In this 2014 draft class, Lee will not likely be expected to go man-on-man with another team's top corner in his rookie season. He won't be asked to lead the team in catches or targets, or be the cornerstone of his entire team's passing attack.
Frankly, because of this class, there are plenty of scenarios that involve Lee never being asked to do that. A life as a No. 2 "Z" or slot receiver could be awaiting Lee in the NFL that would fit his skill set and well-roundedness perfectly.
To state the obvious: Just about any quarterback in the NFL will be better than some of the people Lee has had throwing to him the past couple of seasons. Moreover, if Lee is paired with one of the truly great quarterbacks in the league, it could showcase an almost entirely different player—at least, in terms of the ball being more consistent and therefore more catchable.
Lee is, therefore, the perfect example of a guy who could be a rookie-year bust at No. 10 and a fringe Rookie of the Year candidate a round later, with the exact same production.
When Lee hits the NFL, because of his background, skill set and the expectations surrounding him, he'll make an immediate impact in the league.
Even if we've all forgotten about him along the way.