FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The quarterback was there for the taking. So were the dynamic outside linebacker with top-five talent and the blazing-fast wide receiver.
But the Jets opted for another choice: Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee.
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At the point that general manager Mike Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles were on the clock at No. 20, Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch, UCLA linebacker Myles Jack and Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller were available. So was Alabama inside linebacker Reggie Ragland.DataJets NFL draft history databaseBig BoardNewsday's Big Board: Top 100 NFL draft prospects
But the Jets selected a player who not only is talented but versatile. Lee’s speed? Well, that’s just an added bonus.
“What intrigued us the most about him is, he’s a younger player but he’s very athletic,” Maccagnan said. “ . . . He brings the ability to improve our overall team speed.”
For the seventh straight year, the Jets took a defensive player in Round 1 of the NFL Draft.
The last time they drafted a linebacker from Ohio State? Vernon Gholston, the sixth overall pick in 2008. Jets fans hope Lee brings far more on-field production than his fellow Buckeye did.
Though Lee was listed as an outside linebacker at Ohio State, Bowles was quick to point out that the 6-1, 232-pounder will be an inside linebacker. He’ll play behind Erin Henderson to start but has the ability to be a three-down player. Lee also can play outside, the Jets said.
With the free-agent departure of Demario Davis (who went to the Browns), Lee will bring athleticism and speed to a linebacking corps that includes Henderson (Davis’ replacement) and longtime veteran David Harris.
At first glance, Lee appears to be undersized for the position. But Bowles made it clear that the Jets aren’t looking for the 21-year-old to bulk up. “He doesn’t have to be a 240, 250 linebacker,” he said. “That’s not what we were looking for.”
Bowles said they took Lee because he can go “sideline-to-sideline” and has good pass-coverage ability. That versatility and speed will be an asset against NFL offenses that like to spread out their opponents.
Though only a sophomore, Lee was a starting linebacker in 28 of 30 games for the Buckeyes. He trailed only Joey Bosa (the third overall pick Thursday night) in tackles for loss with 27 1⁄2 and quarterback sacks (12). A second-team Associated Press All-American in 2015, Lee had 147 career tackles, five pass breakups, 10 quarterback hurries and three interceptions.
“You knew on tape that he was a very fast linebacker,” Maccagnan said.
Said Bowles: “He makes us a lot faster.”
Lee, the fifth Ohio State player to be drafted in the Top 20 Thursday night, said he didn’t know the Jets would draft him, but he was happy they did.
“Honestly, I’m in shock because I could not believe [it] and all my dreams are finally coming true. It was just a great moment for me,” said Lee, a former Buckeyes teammate of Jets 2015 second-rounder Devin Smith. “I didn’t know anything, honestly. I just knew that I had a great visit, I thought that I connected with the coaches, especially [assistant head coach/linebackers coach Mike Caldwell] and Coach Bowles. It was just kind of a wait and see.”
No Wilkerson trade imminent. Despite the Jets’ attempts to trade defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, Maccagnan confirmed that it likely won’t happen before the draft is over.