The 2016 NFL Draft is almost here, and before we know it, the Buffalo Bills will be turning in their card with their first first-round pick in two years.
Historically, the Bills have drafted a player who visited them pre-draft with their first-round pick. Leading up to the draft, we'll be looking at key visitors for Buffalo, to see who makes sense for them at No. 19 overall.
Moving on to linebacker prospects, we're taking a look at Ohio State's Darron Lee.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Lee moved to Ohio in eighth grade and played football and ran track. He played mainly as the quarterback for his high school team, and joined Ohio State as a three-star safety recruit.
As a true freshman, Lee played two games as a safety before needing to take a medical redshirt for an injury. For the 2014 season, Lee switched to linebacker and became a starter (with Ryan Shazier having just departed in the NFL Draft). In his two seasons as a starter, Lee collected 147 tackles, 27.5 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, three interceptions, and three forced fumbles.
Lee is a hard worker who will compete to meet his goals. He attended about a half-dozen camps at Ohio State while he was in high school before Urban Meyer finally extended him a scholarship offer. The 21-year-old leaves Columbus as a redshirt sophomore.
Lee is the new breed of linebacker prototype in the NFL, a smaller-sized player with athletic measurements that would have made him a good safety prospect 10 years ago. He's only 6'1" and 232 pounds, but has a good enough wingspan that he compares favorably to Bobby Wagner's build. He also shines on the track, with a 4.47-second 40-yard dash at the Combine, a 1.54-second 10-yard split, and an elite 11'1" broad jump. Assuming he can translate those metrics to the football field, he should be able to run with just about anyone in coverage between the slots (although he'd probably have difficulty defending a 6'7" tight end).
Run defense and block shedding
Lee is a bit hit-or-miss in this department (literally). Still fairly new to the position, he tackles a lot of people by diving toward their hips and grabbing their legs, which can lead to a fair share of broken tackles. Lee's small size and lack of core power don't help him when he's taking on blocks; an offensive guard will have no trouble latching on, and fullbacks and tight ends are also capable of keeping him at bay. To be effective, Lee needs to stay clean and have someone else blocking up the play for him.
Lee does have excellent range, as you'd expect. He's fast enough that if a player is running toward the sideline, he can usually make a beeline for him and emerge with a tackle for a loss.
He's still developing his understanding of how to read misdirection, track the ball, and take the right angle to the play. Play-action and zone reads freeze him in place, and he can be prone to attacking the wrong gap in a run play. That makes him a bit of a liability in that aspect of defense.
Pass coverage and fluidity in space
Let's do the easy part first: Lee's athleticism makes him a very versatile coverage linebacker. Ohio State routinely deployed him in the slot due to his speed, and he's fast enough to handle most coverage responsibilities.
Much like his run aptitude, however, Lee is still refining his coverage game. He doesn't seem wholly comfortable in zone coverage yet, being able to see what's in front of him, but not always dropping to an appropriate depth for the players that move behind him. In man coverage, too, he can improve at mirroring his target. That said, he does a good job running with them, and using his hands to control the play up to the catch point.
Lee has good potential in this area. His outstanding first step makes him a handful as a blitzer, and when he runs a delayed blitz, he does a good job of finding a gap to explode through for a pressure. He doesn't really have a developed pass rushing technique, and linemen can erase him if they're able to lay a hand on him, but if he's used creatively, he could be a dangerous rusher in specific situations.
Lee is one of the best pure athletes available in this draft class. I'm not convinced he's a great linebacker, though. At this stage, he's often out of position to be making plays. Generally, he's hesitant on film, and his tackling form is a work in progress.
Could he eventually become a great player? It's possible, given his athletic ability. He's definitely not my preference, though. Given the talented football players who should be available in the first round, I don't think it makes sense to draft an unrefined athlete and hope his football skills keep trending upward.