Marqise Lee has become somewhat of an afterthought in a 2014 NFL draft class stacked with talent at wide receiver, but he has the talent to be a superstar at the next level.
Lee had the college football season buzzing in 2012 after a sparkling sophomore campaign; however, a number of factors contributed to his production falling off in 2013. That has presumably scared some teams away from taking him high in the first round, so Lee has post-hype sleeper written all over him.
This year's draft seems quite unpredictable as a whole, and Lee's status is a microcosm of that. Here is a closer look at the positives working in Lee's favor, the negatives that could hold him back and the ultimate expectation for where he'll end up on draft night.
Draft stock can seemingly change at the drop of a dime, which is why it isn't particularly surprising that Lee has gone from darling to ugly duckling in terms of overall buzz. Had Lee been allowed to enter the draft after his sophomore season, there is little doubt that he would have been a top-10 selection.
Lee racked up 118 receptions for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns en route to an impressive fourth-place finish in the Heisman Trophy voting. Unfortunately for Lee, he lost quarterback Matt Barkley to the NFL, and head coach Lane Kiffin was fired in the middle of the season.
All of that turnover led to a major downturn in production, as Lee ended 2013 with just 57 grabs for 791 yards and four touchdowns. As disturbing as that drop may seem on the surface, the fact of the matter is that Lee has proven capable of being a go-to guy in an explosive offense.
Lee also boasts measurables that NFL teams drool over. Lee is a 6-foot, 192-pound specimen with all the tools necessary to be great. According to NFL.com, Lee ran a respectable 40-yard dash of 4.52 seconds, and he boasted one of the best broad jumps among receivers, which speaks to his explosiveness.
Clemson's Sammy Watkins is considered to be the top wide receiver in the 2014 class by a fairly considerable margin, but Lee would have been the guy at this time one year ago. As pointed out by Ross Tucker of NBC Sports Network, Lee and Watkins have gone in different directions:
What a difference a year makes in draft value for Marqise Lee & Sammy Watkins— Ross Tucker (@RossTuckerNFL) April 30, 2014
The fact that Lee was ever considered better than Watkins is a major compliment, though. Perhaps he isn't quite at Watkins' level right now, but NFL Network's Albert Breer believes that much of Lee's downfall had to do with the USC program itself.
USC's Marqise Lee is incredibly intriguing to me. Right there with Watkins going into the year. Turmoil in that program changed things.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) April 24, 2014
From a pure skills perspective, Lee has good size, respectable speed and excellent leaping ability. He also happens to be a polished route-runner, which will give him the opportunity to be productive right away depending upon where he ultimately lands.
The biggest issue for Lee right now is perception versus reality. The perception is that Lee regressed significantly as a player in 2013, but the reality is that the Trojans were such a mess as a team that it would have been difficult for anyone to produce consistently.
Guys like Watkins and Mike Evans had great 2013 campaigns, but they also had steady quarterbacks throwing them the ball in the form of Tajh Boyd and Johnny Manziel, respectively. Lee didn't have that, and it definitely damaged his reputation as an elite receiver.
Whether it's fair or not, there may be a belief that a truly great player would have found a way to have a strong statistical season no matter what. In addition to big changes at quarterback and on the coaching staff, Lee also dealt with injuries.
According to Brian Costello of the New York Post, Lee essentially chalked up his lack of success entirely to a knee injury.
Unfortunately I had an [knee] injury that I couldn't control. That caused me to miss [three] games and didn't let me perform to my potential. That's really about it. I'm 100 percent now and I'm back to where I am. Nothing has changed. I'm going to come out and do what I'm supposed to.
Injuries will inevitably happen in a game as physical as football, but knee injuries are obviously disconcerting. Lee's knee ailment this past season was only a short-term thing; however, there could be a belief that he is susceptible to such injuries moving forward.
Also, the fact that the injury hampered him and prevented him from excelling could be considered a red flag in terms of his ability to play through pain in the NFL.
Lee hasn't changed much as a player over the past year, but the drop in production and the knee injury are clearly working against him.
The fact of the matter is that Lee won't be selected in the top 10 of the 2014 draft, and he won't be taken ahead of Watkins or Evans. It is an unfortunate truth for Lee since he was in prime position to accomplish both of those goals following the 2012 season.
It also feels as though Lee has fallen behind LSU's Odell Beckham, so the best he can probably hope for is to be the fourth receiver off the board. Luckily for Lee, though, there are plenty of teams in the second half of the first round that could use a pass-catcher.
That is roughly where NFL Network's Mike Mayock expects Lee to land, but he also mentioned the possibility of Lee dropping to the top of the second round, according to College Football 24/7:
Mayock on @NFLNetwork's PTD tonight: "With Marqise Lee, I'm hearing late 1st, early 2nd."— CollegeFootball 24/7 (@NFL_CFB) April 30, 2014
Lee has already experienced a fall from grace, but dropping to the second round would likely be a tough pill for him to swallow. It would involve him falling past several teams in need of help at wide receiver, and it would be somewhat of an indictment of Lee.
All it takes is one team to become enamored with him, though, and the New Orleans Saints could be that team. The Saints are a candidate to trade up in the first round from No. 27 to nab a complement across from Marques Colston, and Michael Detillier of WWL-870 in New Orleans views Lee as the primary target in that scenario:
S. Payton has said he likes a bigger WR. It is why I believe, if Saints move up in Round 1, it is for USC's Marqise Lee over OSU's B. Cooks.— Michael Detillier (@MikeDetillier) April 30, 2014
Which team will select Marqise Lee in the 2014 NFL draft?
That would seem to suggest that Lee's safety net is No. 27 if the Saints decide against trading up. Perhaps that wasn't what Lee initially had in mind, but it could ultimately be the best thing for him.
New Orleans has one of the most explosive offenses in football, orchestrated by quarterback Drew Brees. Also, Lee would see constant single coverage with Colston and tight end Jimmy Graham receiving the bulk of the defensive attention.
The New York Jets at No. 18, Philadelphia Eagles at No. 22 and Kansas City Chiefs at No. 23 are all possibilities as well. New Orleans feels like a great fit, though, so don't be surprised if the Saints strike a deal with the Arizona Cardinals for the No. 20 selection in order to go get him.
There wouldn't necessarily be immediate pressure on Lee to produce in New Orleans, so going there would give him an opportunity to ease into the NFL, and it would give him his best chance to succeed as well.
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