I have never been a scout or a NFL General Manager, but I am willing to watch a ton of football. By watching about 200 snaps of each prospect, we can really get a feel for a player and then know what we are talking about a bit better. It is no exact science, but the NFL hasn't quite figured out drafting either, so we are going to do the best we can.To read more about the 2016 NFL Draft Project, Click Here.
As you can no doubt pick up on, this year is going to be a year with many off-ball, run-and-hit linebackers up in the top few rounds as we seem to have an uncommon number of top athletes at this position coming out. This is surely not a coincidence as the game is changing to require more of these players, while at the same time coaches at the college level are trying to convert players from other positions to this vital spot. They want to find guys who can deal with the zone-read scheme that requires highly athletic defenders to minimize the numbers advantage the offense desires.
However, when you give each of these players (Myles Jack, Jaylon Smith, Reggie Ragland, and now, Darron Lee) the 200-snap treatment, you can find that they all do things differently. And, in the case of Darron Lee, you also must factor in his age and how little he has played at this position in his life. Lee was a standout QB and Safety at the high school level and has only in the last 3 years converted to linebacker. And, to be sure, there are times where he does look like a guy who struggles with some of the basic things a linebacker must do well. But, when he shows you that flash of what he could be, you tend to try to focus on the positives and trust your coaches to figure everything out by the time he turns 22 or 23. Development is a massive part of the draft game in that while we want fully polished prospects, the reality is there are some who have played just 2 seasons at the college level at a position they had never played before. So, do we focus on what he doesn't do well or fixate on the potential? It is not always an exact science.
What I liked:What does Darron Lee do well? You could argue of the 4-3 linebackers he is the very best at blitzing off the edge and getting to the QB after disposing of a RB trying to pick him up. If you seek plays behind the line of scrimmage, his 27.5 tackles for loss and his 12 sacks in 2 years show you nearly 40 explosives and a rate that is fantastic. He also finds the ball pretty well through the traffic that an off-ball linebacker will deal with while also setting the edge on runs that go outside. He has a fine motor and will continue to battle until the whistle. He flies to the ball and rallies with his teammates as well as mirroring a player in the open field to shut down any escape routes. But, the thing that will likely get someone to gamble on him pretty high up the board will be his physical traits that include very good speed and long arms.
What I did not like:There is a disconcerting lack of physicality when taking on and then shedding blocks that sticks with you and almost seems to advertise that he is a conversion linebacker. I wish I had some great examples of linebackers who lacked thump in college but then developed that physicality at the NFL level, but I really don't remember finding many who grow into that type of player. Also, and maybe even more of an issue, he doesn't seem to be a candidate for man coverage down the field. In zone drops - where he never really has to turn and run - he is fine and will actually excel. But, put him in a spot where he has to flip those hips and he certainly doesn't seem comfortable. This is not uncommon at this position, but you would hope a conversion safety would give you more utility to man-up with a tight end or running back, but I am not sure Lee is anywhere close to Jack or even Smith in this category. So, while he appears to be a 3-down linebacker, we must not get carried away about how developed his full skill set is.
Summary and Potential Fit For the Cowboys: As we have said on numerous occasions, there is a greater demand for off-ball linebackers who can run than ever before and Darron Lee is going to have a chance to follow Ryan Shazier before him from Ohio State and attempt to match that production. But, I don't think he is Shazier's quality and for me he would be down a tier or two from the top players at this particular position.
That said, if I circle back to the top theme of this profile, it would be that he demonstrates one of the real quandaries about this entire process - is he what he is now or what he will be? If you have great confidence in developing players and think that Lee right now at 20-years old is very good and yet is only scratching the surface of his potential, then you might find this player is right up your alley. Given the experiences in Dallas at that sort of thing, I might let someone else try their hand at it.