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Does former 1st-rounder Darron Lee still have a future with the Jets?

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 14: Running back Marlon Mack #25 of the Indianapolis Colts is tackled by inside linebacker Darron Lee #58 of the New York Jets during the first quarter at MetLife Stadium on October 14, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 14: Running back Marlon Mack #25 of the Indianapolis Colts is tackled by inside linebacker Darron Lee #58 of the New York Jets during the first quarter at MetLife Stadium on October 14, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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The New York Jets have decided not to pick up linebacker Darron Lee’s fifth-year option, making him a free agent in 2020. Lee has been up and down for the Jets since he was drafted in 2016. With Lee set to become a free agent in 2020, what should the Jets do with Lee?

The New York Jets decided not to use the fifth-year option on linebacker Darron Lee on Friday, making the 2016 first round draft pick a free agent at the end of the 2019 season. This was expected by many since the end of the season and the case to decline the fifth year option grew stronger when the Jets signed linebacker C.J. Mosley in free agency back in March.

There were a couple of other clues that were presented, that this was the way the team was going to go. Lee was not present for the Jets new uniforms reveal in April (Mosley and fellow linebacker Avery Williamson were both present. Williamson was actually one of the models for the new uniforms). Lee was also absent from the voluntary three-day minicamp that was held during NFL Draft week.

There was talk that the Jets were trying to move on from Lee during draft weekend, as they were looking to trade him to acquire more picks. However, Lee made it through the weekend still on the roster and now Jets fans are left thinking, what happens now?

Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News was the first to break the news about the Jets declining Lee’s fifth-year option. Mehta noted that Lee could still have a role on the new look defense with coach Gregg Williams if a trade is not worked out this summer.

Jets won’t be picking up Darron Lee’s 5th-year option (~$10M in 2020), but he could have a role in Greg Williams’ D this yr. He was decent in coverage in ‘18. Don’t rule out a trade in summer. Otherwise, his departure in free agency will help toward getting 2021 compensatory pick

— Manish Mehta (@MMehtaNYDN) May 2, 2019

Lee had the best season of his career in 2018 and was his coverage skills did improve as Mehta noted. Lee recorded three interceptions (second best on the team), 74 tackles (third on the team; Williamson recorded the most with 120), and five passes defended (tied for sixth on the team). Pro Football Focus graded Lee as the 24th best linebacker at 72.4.

Although Lee did have a career year in 2018, he hurt himself and his case for the Jets to pick up his fifth-year option with his season-ending four-game suspension. Lee violated the league’s substance abuse policy and his absence hurt this defense.

Williamson was the more dominant linebacker and had a better statistical season than Lee after signing with the Jets during the 2018 free agency period. Pro Football Focus graded Williamson as the 18th best linebacker at 74.3. Williamson recorded a team-high 120 tackles like mentioned before, three sacks (tied for sixth on the team), and two forced fumbles (tied for second on the team).

This situation needs to be handled delicately this summer because Lee does provide depth at linebacker but he also needs to embrace that role if that’s the case. It would be smart for Lee to embrace that role because he is in a “contract year” and is trying out for 31 other teams in 2019. However, if he complains about this role as a backup, he will be shipped out-of-town in a New York minute. The Jets have holes at cornerback and center that they should try to address if they try to package trades with Lee.

With the Jets declining Lee’s fifth-year option, the heat just got turned up a little more on general manager Mike Maccagnan. Lee is another draft pick in a long line of picks that have not worked out for Maccagnan since 2015. Maccagnan knows how to spend money during free agency but if he wants to make the playoffs, he needs to learn how to develop his own draft picks. If the Jets don’t make the playoffs in 2019, Maccagnan will most likely join Lee when they walk out of Florham Park for good.

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