Darron Lee’s first-round pedigree set forth lofty expectations he simply fell far below in his first two seasons with the New York Jets. The former Ohio State product ranked dead last among the 87 NFL linebackers with at least 800 defensive snaps in overall grade (41.6), and coverage grade (35.5), across 1,666 defensive snaps played in 2016 and 2017.
However, early signs point to Lee shifting the trajectory of his career from bust to boom in 2018.
Lee currently leads all 73 linebackers with at least 50 defensive snaps through Week 2 in overall grade (92.0) and coverage grade (93.1) and has accumulated 13 combined tackles (11 solo), seven defensive stops and two interceptions in the process. Targeted 16 times, the sixth-most among linebackers, he has allowed just 77 yards, three first downs, and no touchdowns. His passer rating when targeted (47.1) and yards allowed per reception (5.5) rank fourth and fifth, respectively, among linebackers targeted at least five times this season.
Of course, sample size concerns will persist for at least the next few weeks, if not further, given the 1,666 defensive snaps Lee has played at a disastrous level. But the subtle improvements evident in his tape against the Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins give weight to the argument that Lee’s success, specifically in coverage, is sustainable.
Running a 4.47-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-1, 232 pounds at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine, Lee was highly coveted for his speed and athleticism entering the draft, but up until his recent performances, it hasn’t been on display. The former high school cornerback struggled early in man coverage and was slow to pick up the needed tendencies and technique for various zone-coverage assignments. Three NFL offseasons, 843 coverage snaps later, Lee has limited his previous inefficiencies.
Lee’s two interceptions of Matthew Stafford were products of strong play in zone coverage. He returned his first pick 36 yards to the house after passing off Lions’ Golden Tate to his teammate’s zone and jumping in front of a pass intended for running back Theo Riddick. The latter was gifted to him from Stafford largely because he nailed his dropback depth to fill his assigned zone while reading the quarterback’s eyes.
The stark improvement in Lee’s coverage grade is largely responsible for his league-leading overall grade – and rightfully so, given the value of coverage play compared to run defense. However, Lee’s next steps towards a tenable seat among the league’s best linebackers will be to maintain his success in coverage and prove at least tolerable against the run.
Lee sits atop the list of the NFL’s 40 highest-graded linebackers (minimum 50 defensive snaps), but he is the only one on the list with a run-defense grade below 53.0. Lee’s Achilles heel when defending the run, dating back to his days at The Shoe, has been his inability to shed the second-level blocks of offensive linemen, and even Lee’s stellar start to the 2018 season hasn’t been without poor block-shedding. Through two weeks, Lee ranks 26th among the 43 linebackers with 30-plus run-defense snaps in percentage of snaps with a negative grade (15.0 percent).
Looking ahead to Week 3, the Cleveland Browns’ offense will test Lee’s legitimacy in coverage and against the run. Four-year veteran running back Duke Johnson Jr. and second-year tight end David Njoku have both proven to be mismatch problems in the past, putting the pressure on Lee to deliver for the third consecutive week.