At just over 6'0", Nebraska’s Lavonte David slipped on draft day until late in Round 2 thanks to concerns about how a linebacker at his size, despite all of his production and explosiveness, would transition to the NFL.
Four years later, David is one of the NFL’s best outside linebackers, leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' tremendous and young defensive front seven.
With similar measuarables and even better NFL Scouting Combine numbers, Ohio State’s Darron Lee is aiming to be the NFL’s newest version of David, with more optimism about draft position thanks to the change in how NFL teams value linebackers.
The 6'1" Lee boasts some of the most remarkable athleticism of any defender in the 2016 class. And that athletic ability, though littered with technical areas of improvement, has already shown teams his tremendous change of direction in coverage, run support and as a pass-rusher despite his size limitations.
If there’s one thing Lee has over David as a prospect, it’s his natural athletic upside. Besting David’s 2012 combine performance, per NFL Draft Scout, in every speed-based category except for the vertical jump, Lee wowed with an 11’1" broad jump and 4.47 40-yard dash time, both among the best of any player in attendance.
And in games, Lee’s able to show that consistently, especially when reading and reacting in space. In the play above, Lee (No. 43) quickly and smoothly got into his Cover 2 drop, staying highly balanced throughout and keeping his lower half in an athletic position. But as soon as he saw the quarterback flinch in the pocket, Lee pounced upfield.
That explosion allowed him to close the gap in a matter of a few steps and finish the sack primarily because he was able to stay balanced, under control and explosive throughout all of his movements.
It’s plays such as this that give credence to his 40-yard dash and broad jump figures—and the value to NFL Scouting Combine process as a whole. And while David offered more composed anticipation and far fewer wasted steps in space, Lee’s already able to make up for a lack of refinement with a rare burst from a linebacker.
Coverage to Run Support
As a 4-3 outside linebacker, the ability to transition from coverage to run support and vice versa is paramount. The rise in mobile quarterbacks, quicker offenses and underneath routes has made linebackers who can explosively change direction highly valued.
David, among just a handful of others, has thrived in this change of NFL offensive focus. As teams shy away from bigger running backs and become more reliant on quarterback and running back speed, bigger linebackers aren’t needed. But explosive, nimble and active ones are.
Notice in the play above Lee’s initial alignment. Set up to be an A-gap rusher pre-snap, Lee’s responsibility was to drop immediately into his Cover 2 drop and pick up the inside route of the receiver. Lee dropped efficiently and in time when the route broke, accomplishing his initial task as a coverage linebacker.
And while his drop step quickness and fluidity is valued, it’s Lee’s immediacy in getting under control and transitioning into a run defender as the quarterback moved that's far more valuable. Added footwork confidence and smoother transitions could have led to a far more violent finish as a tackler, but that could come in time at the NFL level.
By comparison, David left Nebraska after four years at the college level (two at a junior college) and was the feature defender and team leader throughout his college career. Lee left school after his redshirt sophomore year with plenty of on-film flashes and ample opportunity to continue maximizing the speed of his change of direction.
While both David and Lee lack the ideal length or bulk to be consistent edge-rushers, both can have an impact as pass-rushers thanks to their explosiveness and controlled change of direction in the short area.
Lee saw more pure rushing opportunities in his final college seasons than David, and Lee enters the NFL draft process with far more edge experience. However, both have in common that they’ll thrive in the NFL not as 3-4 edge-players but situationally explosive 4-3 over-aligned linebackers who can threaten a defense with their bursts.
As in the play above, Lee’s arm length and nimbleness allowed him to meet his left tackle assignment (in this case, fellow draft prospect Jack Conklin), be active enough to keep himself clean from total engagement and attack upfield when he had space to work. While he didn’t officially get the sack himself, he forced Connor Cook to both stay in the pocket and, if not for the backside pressure, may have finished the tackle himself.
As a true blitzer, Lee, like David does for the Buccanneers, uses his elite first step and burst upfield to gain an initial and sometimes insurmountable penetration on his blocker. As a shorter linebacker, his size is a benefit when trying to quickly get to and under blocking assignments because it’s difficult for offensive tackles to bend and extend a punch at his level.
In the play above, notice Lee’s first-step burst, his inside shoulder dip as he runs under, through and eventually around his guard responsibility and cleans up the sack himself.
How High Should Lee Go?
In the 2012 NFL draft, David fell to 58th overall, nearly out of the second round—primarily because of his lack of ideal size. Even just four short years ago, NFL teams were averse to smaller linebackers and unsure whether they could handle three downs of an NFL workload.
Now, with running back rotations even more prevalent and horizontal stretching of offenses the new norm, range, quickness and coverage versatility are essential. If David were to enter this draft class, he might be in the top-20 mix thanks to what NFL teams value more than they did just four drafts ago.
And that spells good news for Lee. Because while Lee isn’t on David’s level of refined footwork or initial hand engagement with blockers or other technique-driven skills, he does offer similar burst, lateral quickness, explosiveness and athletic upside.
While NFL teams covet Myles Jack, Lee might be a worthy fallback option. Lee isn’t as dominate in coverage as Jack, as refined as a linebacker as David or as productive as former Buckeye Ryan Shazier. But he does offer near-elite athletic upside, range and versatility to fit any offense.
He’ll be a bit of a project, but he’s one worth projecting to go in the top 20, especially for teams that unwisely passed on David four years ago.