Dan Quinn and Scott Pioli have made it no secret that they highly value athleticism in the draft. Last year's draft class was filled with upper echelon athletes with Vic Beasley, Jalen Collins, Tevin Coleman, and Grady Jarrett all amongst some of the most athletic players for their positions.
Darron Lee from Ohio State is definitely a player that Quinn and Pioli would covet in the draft. Lee blew the doors off of the combine, and it directly translates to the field. A team like the Falcons who struggled with making tackles in space could severely use an athlete like Darron Lee at the second level.
Quinn is on the record talking about a sore need for athleticism at the linebacker position:
It's not like the fullback dive and you're going to see how you can crush a guy. It's the deep routes that happen, the speed, the screen plays. For a linebacker, tackling in space is huge because it happens on third down, it happens on special teams, it happens so many times in the pass game. From a tackling standpoint, that's what I'm looking for the most: space tackling. That's where you can feel a guy's speed, and not how quickly I can get to that hole from four yards away. That's what I'm looking for when I'm evaluating the linebackers.
Here's how Darron Lee performed at the combine, courtesy of Mockdraftable.com.
Lee's athleticism was on display at all times during his tenure at Ohio State. He lined up everywhere on the Buckeyes' defense. Lee took reps at inside linebacker, outside linebacker, edge, and he even played slot corner. Chris Ash was creative with utilizing Lee's freakish athletic talents to inflict damage on opposing offenses.
Open field tackling was (and has been) a massive area of concern for the Falcons last year. There were too many occasions where the players at the second level weren't fast or physical enough to bring down backs and receivers with room to run. Here's one of the worst examples against the Dallas Cowboys in Week Three.
Tackling in space is a strength for Darron Lee. He covers ground extremely quickly allowing him to close on just about any player in the open field. On the following play against Alabama, Lee explodes downhill as Amari Cooper receives the bubble screen and brings him down before the first down marker.
This is a key trait that Atlanta could desperately use in their linebacker corp. Justin Durant was supposed to be that guy (and was early in the season), but repeated injuries slowly wore down his effectiveness as the season wore on.
A lot of hyper-athletic linebackers are automatically slapped with the "coverage linebacker" label. Lee is a bit inconsistent here. He's not like Myles Jack who's outrageous athletic ability allows him to move with proficiency forwards and backwards. Lee closes quickly on shorter, shallower routes in front of him, but struggles a bit with deeper routes and route concepts running through his zone.
Here Lee is playing the strongside linebacker spot on the right side of the offensive line. Ohio State is playing Cover 3 on the play, which means Lee is responsible for the flat on the short side of the field. He bit hard on the play fake even though the receiver he was lined up directly across from ran a route into his zone. After realizing it's a pass play, he fails to find the receiver behind him who drops the ball.
Here's an example from their bowl game against Notre Dame. Lee is lined up as the slot cornerback with the wide receiver he's guarding running a post towards the middle of the field. He's not the most natural coverage player when he's forced into a position where he needs to backpedal for a bit and stay in front of receivers, even with safety help overtop and to the inside.
Lee's feet get stuck in quicksand as he fails to move until the receiver is already two steps inside of him. The feet give a great insight to the thought process of football players when they're in isolated positions or alignments in reactionary states. Lee stammering his feet forward two steps before reacting far too late after the receiver declares inside displays a moment of hesitancy and uncomfortability.
The biggest area of concern, at least for immediate production, is the lack of physicality coming downhill. Linebackers in the NFL need to be able to dish out punishment on offensive linemen occasionally to maintain gap integrity and squeeze plays back towards the middle of the defense.
Lee is hesitant to attack blockers coming directly towards him. He's a "catcher" that lets the linemen initiate contact with him instead of vice versa. Most of the time he's going to be able to beat linemen with his speed, especially against zone blocking teams where he can knife through opening lanes along the offensive line. He struggles against gap/man blocking schemes where he gets engaged in games of patty-cake instead of violently playing downhill.
Lee, like most college prospects, is a work in progress at this point. He's not as polished as Myles Jack or Jaylon Smith (pray for his knee) and it shows versus the run and the pass. However, in a draft that lacks marquee talent, Lee may hear his name called early in the first round. Athletes of Darron Lee's caliber are extremely hard to find and players of his athletic caliber that've been productive at powerhouse programs will be coveted prospects.
With Paul Worrilow manning the middle linebacker position, Lee would slide right in as an immediate starter at the weakside linebacker position. His first year may be a little rough as he adjusts to the complexity and physicality of the pro game, but his athletic gifts are worth taking the gamble at the 17th overall pick. He's a player that needs to be kept clean, but with a talented defensive line featuring Jonathan Babineaux, Derrick Shelby, Grady Jarrett, and Ra'Shede Hageman he'll be able to roam fairly freely behind those guys.
Darron Lee would be a tremendous upgrade for the Falcons linebacker unit. We just need to wait and see if they pull the trigger on him.