The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the linebacker position. Today we look at Darron Lee from the Ohio State University.
A medical redshirt in his freshman season, Lee only played two years of ball for Coach Urban Meyer, starting in 28 of his 30 games. While Darron Lee’s time at Ohio State was short lived, it certainly was not short on accomplishments. In 2014 following his redshirt year, Lee started in all 15 games and was a major contributor in helping OSU capture a national championship. As a result, the outside linebacker received national freshman All-American honors. Lee would continue his success this past fall as a sophomore to comprise career numbers of 147 tackles, 27.5 tackles for loss, and 12 sacks. Only one player has had more tackles for losses and sacks on the team the past two seasons, and that player was Joey Bosa. Maybe you have heard of him. Lee was also an AP second-team All-American selection in 2015.
Lee is an extremely intriguing prospect, and it will be interesting to see how a team plans to utilize him once he is drafted. If you know any preliminary info about this kid, you know that he can flat out fly. At the scouting combine about a month ago, Lee put on a show when he posted a 4.47 40 time that is just unheard of at the linebacker position. On the football field, it is no mystery he can do it in pads as well, and he allows this athleticism to mold into multiple parts of his game.
Rushing the passer is in my opinion the best attribute Lee possesses, and he can do it off the edge or through interior gaps thanks to the explosion and power he brings. As you can see below, he also excels at eating up space and closing gaps between him and a ballcarrier. This is a testament to the tremendous range and the relentless pursuit he shows on gamedays. An every down, versatile linebacker, Lee logged plenty of coverage snaps (specifically zone ones) as he was on the field a lot on third downs.
Significantly for a linebacker, the former Buckeye is a solid tackler who can pack a punch if he meets up with you the right way. Setting the edge against the run in his two years was also a plus on tape. A last notable is that he had a knack for forcing fumbles in college, which is not a bad one to have at all. What I can really see this kid being asked to do often at the next level is spy an opposing quarterback. His freakish ways make him a prime candidate to mirror the likes of mobile signal callers like Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, and Tyrod Taylor.
Despite all the talent that Darron Lee brings to the table, there are some questions as to how he will translate to the pro level. For an outside linebacker in either a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense (expect him to play in a 4-3 like at OSU), Lee is undersized. His frame more resembles that of a safety’s, and that is why he can get lost from time to time when he has to sort through inside traffic. Often, Lee was easily pushed around by offensive lineman and had a hard time moving them off of their blocks. For a guy who is already at a disadvantage because of his size, this is something that needs to change quick.
He also needs to work on harnessing his explosion and energy into making smart, consistent football plays. Examples are Lee’s tendencies of biting up on play action passes and overshooting tackles by not breaking down first. A lot of the success he had in college was thanks to his athleticism (as is the case for most). With a small sample size at OSU, general managers and executives have to ask themselves if Darron Lee is more than a workout warrior. To cap it off, Lee needs to work on getting more depth when he is in zone coverage. That can come in time.
Lee is a tough prospect to decipher; this is one of the toughest calls I’ve had to make on a player. There is no denying what his ceiling can be; he has clear-cut first round talent with tools that coaching staffs drool over. With that being said, I am not sure Lee is as polished as he should be for the time being. His size is also a real concern for the pros. It should be very compelling to see what role this young man plays on Sundays. To me, he is very similar to Shaq Thompson out of Washington a year ago. Nobody knew how Thompson would be utilized in the NFL, but what makes these two so alike is that they are both very dynamic players at smaller sizes. Lee looks like more of a second round pick in my eyes with perhaps more bust potential than some may anticipate. Yet, it is what Lee may become that can make him a first round pick and have teams excited come April.
A few places I like for Lee toward the end of the first round are Buffalo and Minnesota. Both of them could use some LB help, specifically on the outside, and both of them have tremendous defensive units and coaches. Head coach Mike Zimmer has done a fine job for the Vikings thus far, and there are not many guys who run a defense like him. He could find a niche for Lee early on and allow him to get comfortable with all the young talent Minnesota has added on that side of the ball. The situation would be exactly the same in Buffalo with Rex Ryan. His defenses are always exotic and Lee would be just another unique chess piece he could deploy to startle offenses. Again, no pressure to perform right from the start, although the Buckeye certainly has the ability to do so if necessary.