Jacksonville wasn't where Marqise Lee envisioned starting his NFL career.
Not because he's anti-Jaguars or doesn't have an appreciation for Florida—though we'll find out much more about the latter in the coming years. No, Lee never envisioned becoming a Jaguar because, even after a less-than-ideal junior season, the USC product likely never saw himself slipping all the way to No. 39.
Yet there he was as the players in the green room whittled from 30, sitting anxiously as fellow receivers Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr., Kelvin Benjamin and Brandin Cooks went flying off the board. There is no accurate parallel one can draw to that emotion. The paralyzing unknowingness. The creeping doubt about your decision to attend the draft and the creeping frustration that comes with staying around one more night. That slow disappearance of literally millions of dollars.
The Jaguars allowed Lee to breathe a sigh of relief Thursday night, stopping his fall with the No. 39 pick. That mostly fell in line with pre-draft expectations. ESPN's Mel Kiper had Lee landing with the Cardinals at No. 23, while colleague Todd McShay's final first-round outlook put him No. 21 to the Packers. Lee had decidedly dropped behind Evans and Watkins on almost every draft board and by Thursday night, was fighting with the likes of Cooks and Beckham—an unthinkable drop in December.
While there are plenty of reasons to have Evans and Watkins over Lee, Jacksonville may wind up with one of the draft's biggest steals. It seems almost forever ago—mainly because the draft process took forever and a day—that Lee was the best receiver in college football, bar none. But his history of production and well-refined skill set speak well to his NFL transition.
In 2012, Lee had one of the best seasons for wideout in college football history. He made 118 receptions for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns en route to a runaway victory in the Biletnikoff Award voting, awarded every year to the nation's top receiver. With Matt Barkley at the helm, the Trojans had one of the nation's most powerful offenses amid a frustrating 7-6 campaign.
Heading into last season, much was expected of Lee. Despite Barkley's departure for the NFL, some pegged him as a Heisman contender. He would have been the first wideout in more than two decades, but given his multi-faceted skill set, it didn't seem out of reach.
Of course, Lee's junior year proved nothing of the sort. He set career lows—57 receptions, 791 yards and four touchdowns—as USC's offense became a weekly dumpster fire.
While Lee only missed two games due to injury, he spent almost the entire season dealing with a bothersome knee problem that enraptured his season. Here is where most would commend his toughness. Lee was in and out of games, gritting his way through pain the way most coaches say they would love.
"Ain't nothing changed," Lee told USA Today's . "I don't know what scouts are seeing as far as me being this in 2012 and me being this in 2013. As far as production goes and doing my job—it's the same. The only thing that changed is stuff I couldn't control."
Only Lee's toughness had an unintended adverse effect: It provided a ton of bad tape for NFL teams. Scouts cognitively knew Lee was playing through injury. You couldn't not know based on the way he gimped back to the huddle after a ton of plays. But there is only so many times one can watch a player have a slow break off the line or telegraph his body on routes without that creeping into your psyche.
Lee is neither a 6'5" behemoth like Evans, nor a brilliant athlete like Watkins. Concerns over Lee's ability to be an elite NFL receiver were only exacerbated at the combine. He ran a 4.52-second, 40-yard dash and posted a 4.01-second shuttle run, neither of which put him among the class' best receivers. There is a weird phenomenon that comes with merely being "pretty good," and it usually involves being shuffled out of a conversation.
Marqise Lee really needs to learn how to catch the football tho. Big concern for me.— Leo (@LeoHowell8) May 9, 2014
Though not as severe, Lee's drop hearkens memories of Keenan Allen. The Cal product was a consistently productive collegiate receiver and considered among the best, if not the best, receiver in last year's crop when he declared. Slow splits and questions about his top-end speed wound up overtaking Allen's narrative, though, allowing him to drop all the way to the third round. And all Allen—an awesome receiver in every non-stopwatch manner—did in 2013 was become the 12th rookie wideout in history to post a 1,000-yard season.
That's no guarantee Lee will do the same. Justin Blackmon's murky status looms over the entire wide receiver depth chart and may open a starting spot right away. Jacksonville might have been the best possible destination for instant production. Neither Ace Sanders nor Cecil Shorts are superstar-worthy talents, though Shorts should remain Chad Henne's (or first-round pick Blake Bortles') top target initially.
But Lee may wind up functioning in a role similar to Allen. He runs crisp, smart routes, has an understanding of a complex NFL route tree and isn't some ground-bound nonentity. Lee is a solid leaper and can get up over taller defenders to pluck 50-50 balls from the air. Wide receiver is among the most difficult positions from a translation point, but Lee has the profile of someone who should fit right in.
I'd expect Lee to produce like a typical third wide receiver his rookie season, even if he winds up winning a starting gig out of camp. There is just too much historical data we have saying that Allen is an anomaly—not the rule. If he can fit in on the outside early and develop into a solid No. 2 receiver over the course of his career.
Either way, just don't be surprised when Lee's counting stats are comparable to the Evans-Watkins pair and better than any of the other players considered in his class. Marqise Lee didn't envision himself in a Jaguars uniform, but fans will soon be thankful he is.
Season projection: 51 receptions, 751 yards, 5 touchdowns
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