INDIANAPOLIS — Darron Lee is arriving in the NFL at the same time that skills are needed more than ever.
The Ohio State star is widely regarded as the third-best coverage linebacker in the draft, trailing a pair of projected top-10 picks in UCLA’s Myles Jack and Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith.
Fifteen years ago, a raw linebacker like Lee — who carries 232 pounds on a 6-foot-1 frame — would have been a late-round pick, his speed discounted because of his lack of size and experience taking on offensive linemen at the point of attack.
Now Lee is a projected first-rounder, a possibility to climb into the top half of the first round, a potential target for a team like the New Orleans Saints — a team in need of a linebacker who can cover running backs, tight ends and handle receivers in zone coverage.
“I don’t really know why the game is getting a lot faster, (but) it’s more of a passing league and the quarterback is getting the ball out quicker and making linebackers run,” Lee said. “That’s all I know. That’s all I’ve been seeing on Sundays.”
A quarterback and safety in high school, Lee has only played the linebacker position for three seasons — one of them a transitional year on the bench.
The two years Lee spent on the field at Ohio State show incredible promise.
Lee racked up 146 tackles over two seasons with the Buckeyes — but his ability to make the big play, especially in the passing game, has NFL talent evaluators salivating. Lee had 27 tackles for loss, three interceptions and 11 sacks, making him the most productive pass rusher, by far, of the off-the-ball linebackers coveted in this draft.
His quarterbacking past allows Lee to be a step ahead in the passing game. Ohio State asked Lee to play zone and man, covering everything from running backs to tight ends and slot receivers.
“Tendencies — when quarterbacks do little subtle things, picking up on those is a lot easier for me than say the next guy,” Lee said. “And some of the stuff I did as a quarterback, being agile and being able to move, that helps with playmaking on the defensive side of the ball.”
Lee still has a long way to go when it comes to taking on offensive linemen and disengaging from blocks.
If he plays behind a strong defensive line, though, Lee’s speed makes him a devastating run-and-chase tackler from the weak side.
Lee is confident that as he continues to learn the position, he’ll develop the technique to beat bigger blockers and become a complete impact player against the pass and run.
“I know a lot of teams are looking for speed,” Lee said. “I feel that’s something I’ll be able to do — me tuning up my technique and becoming more of a linebacker over these next couple of years, that will help me out.”
If Lee backs up his tape with an impressive showing in combine drills Sunday, he might have a chance to climb even higher on draft boards.
Smith, who tore the ACL and LCL in his knee in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, suffered nerve damage that could reportedly keep him out of action his entire rookie season.
A team in need could decide to take Lee instead, and he firmly believes he’s worth the pick.
“Because of how I approach the game, my passion for the game and my work ethic,” Lee said. “When I’m not on the field, just what I do: How I carry myself, the drills I constantly do, the film I watch. I’m still learning linebacker. It will be three years, in a couple weeks, I’ve been playing the position.”
And he’s already proven he’s the type of defender the NFL is desperately trying to find.