So the Jets chose Darron Lee. A lot of people seem to like the pick. I'm not sure I'm one of them.
Some random thoughts. First, he's fast. Really fast. What sets him apart here is his initial burst; straight line, making plays downhill, attacking the quarterback or the ball carrier, his burst is special. As long as he doesn't get caught up in traffic, that burst will, I think, result in a pretty high percentage of tackles for loss. He can burst through a seam or around the edge too quickly for the blocker to respond, and get to his target untouched. This shows up on tape and in his statistics, where more than 26% of his tackles over the last two years were behind the line of scrimmage. I think we're going to see plays on a fairly regular basis where Lee just beats his man into the backfield and makes a tackle for a loss untouched.
That is for me pretty much the extent of what makes Lee special on tape. Tackles for loss are really important; they are drive killers in a way that other tackles aren't. But there are other things Lee is being touted for which I just don't see.
Let's start with what some are calling his ability to be a sideline to sideline defender. While Lee's speed suggests this should be a strength, the tape is nearly completely devoid of plays where he actually shows this ability. The stats also are a bit troubling in this respect. Ordinarily a linebacker who is touted as being a sideline to sideline defender is statistically what people call a tackling machine. Lee isn't. He was fourth on the 2015 Ohio State team in tackles with just 66, trailing both of his linebacking buddies Joshua Perry and Raekwon Mcmillan by a whopping 39 and 53 tackles, respectively. In short, when it came to making actual plays, the lunch pail stuff of just getting in there and making tackles, Lee was largely MIA. Now, scheme can play a large role in such numbers, and Lee did drop in coverage a fair bit. But it wasn't just scheme. Lee was fairly consistently a half step late in diagnosing plays. He was definitely not one of those guys that just always seems to be in on the tackle. I do not think his instincts are first rate.
It's just one play, but for me it was somewhat emblematic of Lee's lack of football instincts. In the 2014 Michigan game, at the very end of the tape embedded here, around the 9:15 mark, we see Lee directly in front of the quarterback, staring him down. Lee isn't covering anyone, and he isn't worried about containment; the quarterback is hedged in by the pass rush. Here Lee needs to be decisive and close quickly, putting direct pressure on the passer. Instead, he just sort of freezes. Perhaps Lee doesn't think he can get there in time; if so, he needs to get his hands up, disrupt the passing lanes as much as possible. But Lee doesn't do that either. He seems for a second lost in indecision. Again, it's only one play, but for me it was just one example of numerous plays where Lee seems to be caught in no man's land, kind of in the periphery of the play without ever really getting in position to actually make a play. You see it in pass coverage as well, where Lee rarely seems to disrupt passing lanes or make plays on the ball. There are also multiple plays where he is badly fooled on misdirection plays, showing an alarming inability to locate the ball quickly and efficiently. In short, I don't think this is a very instinctual player.
That brings me to Lee's pass coverage. The popular notion seems to be, well, he's really fast, so he's going to do well covering backs, tight ends and slot receivers. The tape, to me, does not really back this up. First, despite the eye popping 4.47 forty time, Lee doesn't really have the speed to stay with NFL receivers. Lee has great initial burst, but his long speed isn't nearly as good as NFL receivers. That's not a knock on Lee; how many linebackers can do that, even the speediest ones? If Lee is asked to cover NFL slot receivers all over the field he will be burned, repeatedly. That doesn't really concern me; it is an unfair task to assign any linebacker to cover an NFL slot receiver all over the field. What I think is the bigger concern is the assumed ability to stay with backs and tight ends in man to man coverage. Lee wasn't really asked to do much of this in college. The tape shows almost exclusive zone coverage for Lee. But every once in a while we catch a glimpse of a man to man assignment for Lee, and the results aren't pretty. Almost every time he is asked to do this, Lee is beaten badly with the first cut of the receiver. I'm not talking about a sliver of separation; I'm talking about the receiver breaking wide open as soon as he makes that first cut. This seems to be consistent with Lee being more of a North/South guy. I see him make special plays when he is asked to simply burst downhill, but I rarely see him do much noteworthy East to West. In zone coverage Lee looks better, but you still rarely see him make an actual play. He doesn't disrupt passing lanes often and he doesn't break up passes. He mostly just competently occupies the zone he's assigned to. That's fine, but there's little to suggest a special pass defender on tape.
Bottom line here is I'm not convinced Lee has the actual skill set to do what many are expecting him to do. I don't think he's shown much ability to be a sideline to sideline tackling machine. I don't think he's shown any ability to cover NFL backs and tight ends in man to man coverage. I don't think he has great football instincts. And I don't think he is very good at sifting through traffic or shedding blocks. To me Lee looks like a situational pass rusher and a guy who will occasionally make the wow play behind the line of scrimmage, but who for large parts of the game will be invisible. I certainly hope I'm wrong, but it is difficult for me to envision Lee ever being a three down Pro Bowl level linebacker, which is presumably the ceiling you look for in a first round selection.