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A look at the rise of Darron Lee so far on the Jets

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 08: Darron Lee #58 of the New York Jets celebrates a play in the second half against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 8, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 08: Darron Lee #58 of the New York Jets celebrates a play in the second half against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 8, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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New York Jets linebacker Darron Lee has come a long way in the year and a half he’s been in the NFL. While he’s still a work in progress but if he continues to improve the way he has been, the future looks bright for #58.

Confidence.

It’s the one aspect of life that dictates the rest. When someone’s confidence is lacking the other parts of their life tend to suffer. Contrarily when an individual’s confidence is sky high their potential is just as unlimited.

This is the development that is unfolding before our very eyes with young linebacker Darron Lee.

Perhaps no New York Jets player has been given more criticism over the past year and a half than Lee, some of it well deserved. But when you take a step back and realize the bigger picture it’s imperative to see just how far Lee has come since his NFL journey began back in April of last year when the Jets drafted him 20th overall.

While there is still plenty of room for growth with the exuberant, young defender, Lee continues to improve week by week and it’s about time to take notice and examine his rise.

Career Beginnings

When watching any footage of Lee, the first thing that might stand out is his uncanny speed. He is an exceptional athlete who’s agility and energy break the mold of what a typical NFL linebacker is supposed to look like. This is why it isn’t too big a surprise that apart from his success on the gridiron, Lee was also a very accomplished track and field star during his time at New Albany High School in Ohio.

The future NFL linebacker was mainly a sprinter participating in events like the 60-meter dash and 100-meter sprint. Lee placed first in the 200-meter competition at the Ohio District Running Event and helped his team take home gold in the 4×400 relay. His football commitments eventually took him away from the sport but his accomplishments today are a good indication of the level of athleticism Lee adds to a defense every time he steps on the football field.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t until his time at Ohio State University that Lee first played the position he plays today. He excelled in high school as a jack-of-all-trades type athlete who played quarterback, receiver, safety, and even returned kicks. Not bad for a player who would one day become an every-down inside linebacker at the professional level.

Lee committed to his dream school on June 26, 2012, and was originally recruited to play safety. After an injury-plagued freshman season (which resulted in a medical redshirt) sitting behind future NFL star Ryan Shazier on the depth chart, the Buckeyes decided to move Lee to linebacker in an effort to increase the speed amongst the position group. This move turned out to be the catalyst that would ultimately vault Lee to college stardom and a first-round selection in the NFL draft.

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The speedy athlete shined at his new position as he finished his sophomore season with 80 total tackles, 6.5 sacks, and two interceptions capped off with Defensive MVP honors at that year’s Sugar Bowl as his team defeated the previously unbeaten Alabama Crimson Tide.

He was playing with swagger. He was playing with confidence.

After another solid season as a redshirt sophomore, Lee decided to follow in the footsteps of his “big brother” Shazier and left college early to pursue a career in the NFL. Projected as a mid-to-late first round pick at the time, Lee wound up being selected number 20 overall by the  Jets and thus began his career with Gang Green.

Early Struggles

Despite being a high draft pick, questions and concerns followed Lee into his first NFL season. He was an unprecedented athlete who tore up the combine with his speed and agility but scouts weren’t sure how his traits would translate at the professional level. Lee was still undersized and didn’t have the qualities of a prototypical NFL linebacker. Regardless, his athleticism was enough to warrant drafting him that high, he just needed his new team to be creative with him.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case during Lee’s initial season with the Jets.

Head coach Todd Bowles opted to utilize Lee in more of the quintessential linebacker role and he struggled as a result. The former Ohio State Buckeye stumbled mightily in pass coverage as opposing quarterbacks finished the year with a 132.9 quarterback rating when targeting him in coverage.

Additionally, despite being regarded as one of the premier blitzers in his draft class the rookie was rarely sent after the quarterback instead opting to use the linebacker more in coverage, his biggest weakness.

Playing on the inside also meant that Lee would be lining up against interior linemen which proved to be a huge mistake as the 6-foot-1 and 220 pounder was no match for opposing guards and centers. This affected his ability to defend against the run as he was consistently blocked out of his gap assignments.

All in all, Lee finished his rookie season with 70 total tackles and a sack while grading out as the worst rookie linebacker and second worst first-round pick with a Pro Football Focus rating of just 38.8.

Although some of the blame could most definitely be placed on Bowles, the first year linebacker undoubtedly struggled throughout his rookie season. Perhaps it was because he was wedged into a role that didn’t quite fit him. If you ask Lee he’d point you to his lack of confidence in his own abilities.

“In the first couple games, I felt really uptight. I felt it up here (in my chest). I just felt uptight and I felt tense because you want to make that impact.”

That quote via Manish Mehta of the Daily News perfectly sums up the feeling that so many first-year players have during their initial NFL season. The game is quicker and the talent level is greater. Throw in having to learn a whole new position combined with the pressures of being a first-round draft choice for a rebuilding team and it’s easy to see why Lee had his fair share of difficulties last season.

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First impressions are everything in professional sports. Debut your first game playing like an All-Star, you’re a future Pro Football Hall of Famer. But stumble at the starting line and you’ll be deemed just another bust.

Lee was determined to prove that he wasn’t going to be like anyone before him. He wasn’t going to be just another bust.

Year Two: Confidence Returns

Lee’s second season at the professional level began just as his first one had ended, in disappointing fashion. The Jets lost their first two games of the season allowing a combined 370 yards on the ground in the process. While that stat can’t solely be attributed to Lee’s lackluster performances, he certainly didn’t help matters as his same issues continued to haunt him.

Despite gaining around 12 pounds in the offseason, Lee was still undersized in his role and was no match for the mauling interior linemen of the Buffalo Bills and Oakland Raiders.

However, it wasn’t solely his physical limitations that were holding the second-year linebacker back. Rather Lee’s athletic aptitudes, his areas of strength, were contributing to his shoddy run defense. Lee is a heat-seeking missile ready to explode on the ball carrier on any given play, but seldom does that missile actually hit its target. Too often Lee would find himself overpursuing tackles and wind up flat on his back.

At least the hesitation was gone. Signs of the swagger Lee had once possessed at Ohio State were beginning to show. He was regaining his confidence. Now he just had to put it all together.

Despite the cries of “bust” still echoing amongst the Jets fanbase and New York media alike, Lee showed steady improvement over the next few weeks. The Jets won three straight and the confidence in the locker room clearly began to rub off on the young players, Lee included.

It wasn’t until Week 7 against the Miami Dolphins where Lee’s true breakout performance occurred. Although the Jets lost to their division rivals 31-28 in heartbreaking fashion, Lee played the best game of his young career as he was all over the field making tackles earning a Pro Football Focus grade of 78.5, a good 40+ points higher than his career average. The budding star followed up his star-making outing with two more spectacular performances against Atlanta and Buffalo with the latter game once again netting him the highest PFF grade of his career with a rating of 86.0.

It was during that Buffalo game where Lee, along with a number of his teammates, was caught on camera dancing during an in-game timeout which spawned the viral “Jets Dance to Anything” meme that swept across Twitter for about a week. If that isn’t swagger, if that isn’t confidence, then I don’t know what is.

Lee has got his mojo back. He’s playing the best football he’s played since his days as a Buckeye. Bowles has invented new, creative ways of utilizing the talented young defender including finally using his speed as an edge rusher to get to the quarterback. And it’s all beginning to come together for the player once deemed a castoff, a liability….. a  bust.

While there may still be rough patches ahead for the uber-athletic linebacker, it’s clear that Lee is enjoying his recent string of success. Now it’s all about consistency.

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Lee’s time in the Big Apple hasn’t come without its share of criticism, but if his recent stretch of superb performances are any indication the second-year linebacker is poised to break out and hopefully prove the naysayers wrong.

His confidence is back, and with that Jets fans should get a good look at that potential that made him first-round pick just a year and a half ago.

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