FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Darron Lee stood in the middle of the defense, knees bent, head moving side to side surveying the offensive formation, and awaited the snap.
As soon as Bryce Petty got the ball, Lee quickly dropped a few steps back, awaiting the pass. Positioned perfectly, Lee held his ground in front of tight end Zach Sudfeld and intercepted it in the back of the end zone.
As he ran off the field after the drills, Lee held up two fingers and accepted high-fives from a few teammates. Why two fingers? A few plays earlier, Lee made a pick in the right corner of the end zone after a lineman hit Ryan Fitzpatrick’s arm as he released the pass.
All in all, a good day for the Jets’ first-round linebacker.
Or, should we say, another good day for Lee, who has started to flash more consistently nearly a month into training camp and show tangible proof of why the Jets invested so heavily in the former Ohio State star.
Lee was part of a national championship team last season, and the Jets took him with an eye toward replacing Demario Davis, who was not re-signed, and eventually to take over for David Harris, who enters his 10th season. But Lee’s selection at 20th overall didn’t come without raised eyebrows. At 6-1, 232, he’s smaller than the traditional inside linebacker; Harris, for instance, has what is considered prototype size at 6-2, 250.
“I’m not used to seeing little skinny guys back there,” defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said of Lee. “I always call him ‘little dog.’ It’s a little funny to me, but he’s also effective.”
What separates Lee from others at his position is his speed, something the Jets plan to take advantage of, perhaps with some untraditional formations once the regular season starts.
“Certain things have come up that we’ve discussed, trying to do certain things with him,” said coach Todd Bowles, who was understandably vague about what those plans might be, not wanting to give away any strategic secrets.
But Bowles acknowledges it’s very early in the process for Lee. And for all that seems to be going right for the rookie, Bowles still sees plenty that’s wrong. Take Friday night’s preseason game against Washington.
“We had some plusses, he had some minuses,” Bowles said. “He missed two tackles. Two times, he was too quick on the trigger and overran some balls. Other times, he was OK.”
Even after Monday’s practice, in which Lee appeared to make several heads-up plays besides his interceptions, Bowles was stingy with his praise.
“I saw him make two plays,” Bowles said. “Now I have to look at the film to see if he had a good practice. But it’s slowing down for him a little, so he’s playing faster.”
Slowing down to play faster? Yes, actually. With Lee getting a better grasp of the Jets’ defensive system, his mind is slowing down because he has a better recognition of what’s coming. So therefore he can play faster because he knows where to go in a given situation.
Lee acknowledges there’s a sizable leap from college to the pros, mostly because the NFL’s size-speed ratio is that much greater. But he seems to be acclimating nicely.
“The biggest difference from college is it’s definitely more physical, for sure, and obviously the speed,” said Lee, who is getting increased snaps with the first-team defense. “But you have to just go out there and play your game. If you give 100- percent effort all the time, hopefully you can make a play here, a tackle there. It’s definitely more rigorous.”
And much more cerebral. Which is why Lee heeded this early advice from Brandon Marshall: Don’t take the cheese. At one of his first practices, Lee fell for a fake by Marshall and wound up getting burned on a pass play.
“Guys have a lot of tricks up their sleeves, so I’m learning that aspect of it,” he said. “I’m learning all the time from the offensive guys, ‘Don’t take the cheese.’ Ever since that practice when I first heard that, I had to play a little smarter. Don’t take the bait. Right after (Marshall’s catch), it was like, ‘Don’t take the cheese, rook.’ ”
There is still much to learn, and mistakes are bound to happen. But the early reviews certainly are promising. So is Lee’s approach.
“I’m not one of those guys who’s going to be satisfied,” he said. “There’s always room for improvement. Got to keep working.”