Home / Sports / Maligned as rookie, 1st-round pick Darron Lee coming into his own

Maligned as rookie, 1st-round pick Darron Lee coming into his own

Nobody in this cold business has the luxury of time even when time might be all it takes to see something special unfold.

The frustrated and fickle mob requires immediate results. If you fail to produce today, you should be gone tomorrow. If you sputter out of the gate, you’re a bum, a bust or a fraud.

They were ready to bury Jets inside linebacker Darron Lee last year. He was lost, learning a new position with new responsibilities. Lee’s underwhelming rookie season prompted predictable questions from impatient souls bent on marginalizing him: Why the heck did we draft this guy anyway?

They didn’t understand. They rarely do.

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Lee wasn’t a finished product when the Jets plucked him out of Ohio State with the No. 20 pick in the 2016 draft. But believe it or not, football players actually can improve over time!

Lee barely resembles the tentative player who had his fair share of struggles last season and early this season. He’s flying all over the field and making an impact in a variety of ways for a 4-5 team that has opened eyes entering Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers.

“I’m trying to get better,” Lee told the Daily News in a candid conversation about his past, present and future. “I’m always up and excited to get to work. Because it’s fun. It’s fun when you start to get the hang of it. And then you want to keep building on it to be lights out. So, I’m falling in love with the grind to continue to get better. Everybody’s hootin’ and hollerin’ about these past couple weeks. That’s expected. Now I’m trying to be lights out.”

His transition from lining up over the slot at Ohio State to moving inside the box with the Jets wasn’t easy. It was a different world for Lee, whose pre-snap keys in college required reading a tight end or wide receiver. Now, he needed to read run formations, splits of offensive linemen and other integral concepts in Todd Bowles’ and Kacy Rodgers’ scheme.

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“That’s probably the biggest adjustment for any linebacker that’s used to playing outside so much,” linebackers coach Mike Caldwell said. “When you’re in space, you’re normally reading the end man on the line of scrimmage. But once you’re in the box, all the reads are different. And it takes a while to get used to seeing guys cross in front of you and the different schemes that offenses come up with.”

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After struggling as a rookie, Darron Lee is now emerging as a defensive force for the surprising Jets.

After struggling as a rookie, Darron Lee is now emerging as a defensive force for the surprising Jets.

(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The education of Lee naturally had ebbs and flows. An ankle injury that shelved him for three weeks (and ultimately required nearly three months of rest in the offseason to fully heal) didn’t help matters, but Caldwell believed it was only a matter of time before his young pupil would grasp the new concepts he was learning.

“If you’ve never read that book before, it’s going to be different for you and it’s going to slow your reading down,” Caldwell said. “Once you’ve read it a number of times and you get used to reading it, then your reads become quicker and you get more confidence in them. His confidence comes from understanding our system better. He spent a lot of time this offseason getting into the integral parts of it like wanting to know what everyone does around him. He’s also gained some knowledge of how offenses are trying to attack our defense… and that just helps him be able to play faster.”

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“Once you see things over and over, you start to recognize them faster. He’s put in a bunch of work in film study and getting his eyes in the right spot. You’re just starting to see his improvement.”

The transformation has been remarkable.

Lee looks like a different player. His sideline-to-sideline speed is evident. Although he admittedly must curtail his penalties (six across 553 snaps, including four that have resulted in nearly $ 73,000 in fines), he’s playing free and loose.

“I’m so relaxed out there,” Lee said. “That’s how I really know that I’m being confident. 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.”

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“I felt salty about last year and how last year went, because that’s not my standard,” Lee continued. “You want to be there and make that impression for your guys. That’s all there was to it. But then I realized that I’m trying to control too much. I’m trying to do way too much. Just focus on what I got to do and everything else will fall into place. And then the next thing you know… I was relaxed and started making plays.”

Lee admitted that he wasn’t a confident player last year “and that’s all there is to it.” He was so concerned about the defensive call and unsure about where his help on a given call came from that he never grasped how opposing offenses were trying to attack him.

Bowles cited “two blunders early on” this season that prompted critics to bang their drums again. Unfamiliarity led to hesitation, which led to being just a tick off from consistently making a difference. Growing pains and more preparation ultimately helped the 6-2, 232-pound linebacker improve his anticipation on game days. Everything changed “from about Week 3 on,” Lee believes.

Darron Lee is comfortable and confident now in his second season with the Jets.

Darron Lee is comfortable and confident now in his second season with the Jets.

(Dennis Schneidler/USA Today Sports)

“Look at last year and early on this season,” Caldwell said. “He might just be a little bit on the right or a little bit on the left. But now he has the confidence and he’s reading things so much faster that he’s able to let his natural abilities take over. He’s making the plays that he was maybe just a fingernail away from making before.”

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Lee, who was just 21 years old when the Jets drafted him, has displayed a versatility in run support, pass coverage and blitzing in his second season. His improvement has grabbed everyone’s attention.

“Darron’s always been a baller,” safety Jamal Adams said. “Now that he’s hot, people are talking about him more.”

Lee’s game-highs in total tackles (8), tackles for loss (3) and quarterback hits (2) in the Jets’ primetime rout over the Bills last week might be a window into his future.

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“I’m going to keep trying to be remembered in this league,” Lee said. “I got a great up-and-coming group around me to help that.”

What’s his ceiling? How much better he can become?

“Ooh… a lot better,” Lee said. “I’m still learning. I’m climbing… and I’m going to continue to climb.”

It’s amazing what can happen when you give a guy some time to grow.

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