Two weeks ago Darron Lee blew up the combine. In an extremely unathletic draft class overall, Lee was one of few who stood out. Rightfully, Indianapolis is when his draft stock really began to rise, but his performance in the workouts was not the only reason. On the field, Lee is nearly as smart as he is athletic. He understands and executes his assignments almost without fail, although sometimes his rigid discipline can come of as a fault. Very few linebackers come out of college as polished as Lee is, along with the upside he possesses. That is what makes him such a good prospect. Exciting, athletic linebackers are in place in all of the best defenses around the league. Lee is simply one of the next in line.
Athleticism is obviously the first thing you think about with Lee. After all, it isn’t every day that a linebacker runs a 4.47 and broad jumps 11 feet. It isn’t hard to see Lee’s athleticism on the field, either. He has great range, in coverage and run pursuit, and has the burst to close quickly. He doesn’t have the strength to stand up blockers like Myles Jack, but has the ability to win in other ways. In the play above, the receiver Lee stays in lockstep with for a good 25 yards is Will Fuller. The same Will Fuller who ran a 4.32 40-yard dash at the combine. This isn’t the type of play that’s going to happen too often, but it does demonstrate that Lee’s athleticism can translate onto the field.
Maybe the second most impressive thing about Lee is his propensity to never be caught out of position. In the three games I watched of him I don’t think I saw it happen once. This play is a great example. It may look like Lee takes way too wide of an angle and allows the quarterback to score, but really it’s the linebacker who rotates over behind him who is at fault. Le was responsible for sealing off the edge and making sure the quarterback had to cut back inside. He fulfilled his duty perfectly. If the inside ‘backer hadn’t overrun the play and slipped, then this might not have resulted in a touchdown.
I know I broke the rule of 5 plays here, but I thought there needed to be another example to give the full picture of Lee’s ability in the run game In the first play Lee didn’t really need to take on a block to seal of the edge, he just had to make it to his spot. In this play Le is seemingly sealed off from the edge, but he gets there anyway. One of the most important tasks for a linebacker when taking on a block is to get your inside shoulder across the body of the blocker in order to free up your outside arm. Lee does that very well on this play and it allows him to force the ball carrier back inside to multiple tacklers.
As big of a strength as Lee’s discipline is, it can sometimes be a fault. You want your athletic linebackers take calculated risks. They shouldn’t be afraid to play outside their assignment at the benefit of generating a negative play. Not to say that Lee is afraid to do this, but I think he plays within his assignment a little too often. One of the things that this creates is that there are few plays where you can find Lee chasing down a ball carrier and making a tackle. More often he fills his lane and direct the ball carrier to other tacklers. Not that that’s a bad thing. On this play you can see the type of tackler that Lee is. When he does make a tackle he wraps up and drives with his pads. Not only does he have sound tackling form, but also strength and power behind his pads. That is what you want from a linebacker.
For an inside linebacker, Lee is a very good pass rusher. The skill set is there and the sacks have followed. 7.5 and 4.5 sacks in the past two seasons, respectively, isn’t a great total but it’s good for a player who lines up off the ball. Lee uses his athleticism as his biggest pass rushing asset. Going against bigger interior offensive linemen, his burst and body control gave him a big advantage right off the snap. And, as you see on this play, he has the burst to finish off the play by getting the quarterback on the ground. He also has the ability to use his hands to keep himself clean throughout the rush. Lee is never going to be the most productive pass rusher, but his presence as an interior disruptor aside from defensive linemen will be an asset to a defense.
Mental Delay in Coverage
Lee has the ability to be very good in coverage, but is held back mentally. He is very similar to former Buckeye and current Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier in this fashion. Both players have the athleticism that gives them range in coverage and the ability to cover slot receivers if need be. However, they often seem lost and have a mental delay at the beginning of the play. In the play above, Lee is dead in the water after he is stuck in place just long enough to get a clean release to the inside. That is type of thing that will kill him in coverage until he learns how to correct it, which is no guarantee.
What you’re getting with Darron Lee is an athletic linebacker with very few flaws in his game. He has the athleticism to generate negative plays and the mentality to play sound assignment football. He can win within the scheme and outside of it, although he needs to take more risks doing the latter. He is a player with a very high ceiling and a relatively safe floor.
Darron Lee is no Myles Jack, but you could do much worse in the middle of the first round. He is one hell of a consolation prize.
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