The NFL is a reactionary league that looks to capitalize on the unique athletes who enter the pros each year. As players become more dynamic and versatile with advanced technology and a year-round focus on training, the NFL will continue to fill up with freakish talents. Among the best athletes available in the 2016 NFL draft is Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee.
Lee is an ideal modern-era NFL linebacker prospect. Some players enter the league and would have been better served had they been part of a different time but not Lee. He represents a new age of player at the position.
NFL offenses are incorporating more spread concepts like the collegiate game to maximize the potential for one-on-one matchups. This is difficult for defenses to slow with pre-snap alignments and forces them to show their hand early. The passer-friendly league has become simplified enough for mediocre quarterbacks to post numbers that would once be considered elite.
The best way that defenses can take some control back and cut down on scoring is to draft more athletes and depend less on sub-packages. In recent drafts, linebackers such as Shaq Thompson and Deone Bucannon went in the first round because the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals saw the value in having defense weapons.
And that is the best way to describe Lee as well.
The former 3-star recruit, per 247Sports, spent just two seasons playing for the Buckeyes after a redshirt season before declaring for the NFL draft. That’s all the time he needed to make his mark, including a dominant run in 2014 to help with a College Football Playoff National Championship. During that time he logged snaps at weak-side linebacker, strong-side linebacker, cornerback and edge-rusher.
The 2015 Second-Team All-American quickly adjusted to his surroundings despite entering Ohio State as a high school safety, wide receiver and quarterback. He spent just two seasons at the linebacker position and had no issues producing at a high level. His production was much better in the same time frame than the other ballyhooed linebacker in the class, UCLA’s Myles Jack.
In 28 career starts, Lee finished with 89 solo tackles, 146 total tackles, 27 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, three interceptions and three forced fumbles. Jack had 117 solo tackles, 178 total tackles, 15 tackles for loss, one sack, four interceptions and one forced fumble in one more game played. Each had similar roles, although Ohio State had a much more talented defense to steal stats.
The Buckeyes trusted Lee to play as a space player more often than any other role, giving him the decision to drop into zone coverage or execute delayed blitzes. He was also a good force linebacker who could set the edge in the run game. The plays he made there project well to the next level as either a 4-3 outside linebacker or 3-4 weak-side interior linebacker.
Three distinct phases of Lee’s game were constant strengths during his career. Let’s take a look at why he will be a defensive weapon in the NFL.
The 6’1”, 232-pound Lee is a tremendous athlete with enough size and length to play any linebacker position. As often as his film showed his ability to be an impactful space player, his combine performance validated what was suspected all along. He is an elite athlete compared to other linebackers who have attended the combine since 1999, according to Mock Draftable.
Lee’s blazing 4.47 40-yard dash translates well on the field. He didn’t have many opportunities to run that type of distance, except for his 41-yard interception return for touchdown against Northern Illinois last season and fumble returns of 61 and 33 yards in 2014. He showed why he played receiver in high school with his speed on those plays.
His open-field closing ability is obvious in every game he played in. His ability to cover the hook, curl flat and swing passes is exactly what defensive coordinators want out of an outside linebacker in zone coverage. But he’s also a capable tackler when working downhill.
Lee's ability to finish at or behind the line of scrimmage is what makes him so impressive. He’ll show his youth and aggressiveness at times with overpursuing angles, but that should continue to improve with more experience. His ability to intercept ball-carriers before they get downfield is much more consistent.
Another way to judge athleticism is to look at how quickly a player recovers from a chop block. Recovery ability is often dictated by flexibility and how well muscles can reload and fire off. Lee demonstrates his loose lower body in this play against Alabama.
Reaction speed is as important as instincts in the NFL, especially for players who will work in space or shoot gaps. That’s where Lee excels, and that won't change.
A common knock for smaller linebackers is that they’re specialists. They often fail to set the edge against the run and cannot filter ball-carriers into the teeth of the defense. Or they struggle to bring down ball-carriers in space.
From the eight games I evaluated, Lee missed just three tackles, and only one was broken. The other two were from poor angles taken. That’s an acceptable rate over that extended view.
Lee can fit as a 4-3 strong-side linebacker because of his ability to engage blocks, establish the edge through force and then shed to finish the play. He was asked to be the force linebacker periodically as opponents tried to attack his side of the field and avoid defensive end Joey Bosa.
Virginia Tech blocking tight end Ryan Malleck, No. 88, is 6’5” and 253 pounds, but he had no chance blocking Lee in the above sweep. Lee took advantage of Malleck’s athletic disadvantage to slip his block outside. While Malleck thought he had the angle to close off the edge, Lee simply set him up to go around him.
He didn't always finish plays such as this, but when he aligned on the line of scrimmage as the strong-side linebacker, he opened opportunities for others to make the tackle. His frame would suggest he’d struggle more to hold his own, but that was rarely the case. As he continues to grow into his body into his mid-20s, he will mature and handle this role even better.
He’s also a candidate for a 3-4 inside linebacker role, especially on the weak side where he’d play in coverage more. He wasn’t asked to be an interior defender often, but he flashed block-shedding when he had the opportunity. Below he slips off Notre Dame right guard Steve Elmer, who is 6’5” and 317 pounds.
This is excellent to see on a 3rd-and-long draw play. There’s no doubt he’s a good coverage player, and his ability to impact the running game will ensure he stays on the field on every defensive snap.
The ability to line up in multiple spots across a defense will lead us to the third and final major positive for Lee: versatility.
Versatility only exists when a player is at least adequate at a variety of positions. Just having experience somewhere doesn’t make one capable of executing at an acceptable level. Lee took full advantage of third-down plays where he could blitz.
Against Notre Dame, Lee logged two solo sacks. The more impressive of the two was his delayed blitz on quarterback DeShone Kizer, where Lee started dropping into zone and then spied. As he found Kizer drifting toward the sideline, he took an aggressive angle but was still able to finish with a hooking sweep tackle that accentuated his raw strength.
Seeing Lee improvise and finish is encouraging and helps his projection as more than just a sub-package linebacker. One of the top responsibilities for strong-side linebackers, especially in a 4-3 under scheme, is to rush the passer effectively. But in the situations where Lee is put in more space to spy or in the middle of the defense, coordinators can be confident in his decision-making.
Defensive lines that are capable of opening gaps for delayed blitzes or stunts would be perfect to unleash Lee. The Buckeyes had a talented defensive front seven that worked well together. The sack below was made possible as Lee attacked post-snap and withstood contact en route to the quarterback.
While he lacks the traditional build for a linebacker, Lee utilizes his length and frame well in a variety of ways, as highlighted. He’s a good reactionary player against the run, which is perfect for outside linebacker roles. His instincts in coverage are good, and he has the athleticism to run with tight ends.
With teams loading up on receiving threats at running back and tight end to increase potential pass-catchers, Lee is the solution to major mismatches. He showed better instincts than Jack, who relies completely on his athleticism. Both may end up being terrific players, but I prefer the more accomplished player who produced in a similar role.