FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Darron Lee took the field at times last season and all kinds of thoughts would rush through his head.
The New York Jets linebacker was thinking too much as a rookie, and it was affecting his natural playmaking abilities. Entering his second NFL season, Lee already can feel the difference.
“My mind’s not racing like it was last year,” he said. “At all.”
Big things were expected last year from Lee, the No. 20 overall pick in the draft out of Ohio State. He started in nine of the 13 games he played and finished fourth on the team with 76 total tackles. His 64 solo takedowns were second only to David Harris’ 82.
But there were also moments when Lee would overrun plays or miss coverage assignments, appearing overwhelmed mentally at times — not uncommon for a rookie.
“It was more of the fact of knowing where I’ve got to be on the call and then reacting to what the offense is giving you,” Lee said. “I was always thinking, ‘All right, I’ve got to be here, and then I can play this now.’ Now, I already know where I’ve got to go, so I don’t need to take time to think about it. So, now I just look and see what the offense gives me and know what to expect.”
That’s a huge step for Lee, who’s slated to start again at inside linebacker with veteran Demario Davis.
“I’m way more comfortable,” Lee said. “I mean, I know what I’m doing. I have a routine, I know the playbook inside and out. Last year, you guys could ask me a call and I probably couldn’t tell you about it. But now, I know what to expect, at least on the field, and definitely know what to do, even making checks and alignments for other guys. I just know all of that now.
“It’s just like second nature.”
It hasn’t been all positive for Lee, who was involved in an incident during a music festival in New York in June. In a moment caught on video and splashed all over social media, Leonard Williams stepped in front of Lee, who was having an argument with a girlfriend, and then briefly lifted and forcibly removed his teammate from a possible altercation.
According to an NFL spokesperson, that incident is still being reviewed by the league. Lee was not arrested or charged with anything resulting from the situation, and he wasn’t disciplined by the Jets.
Lee’s athleticism and playmaking ability at Ohio State made him a top target last year for coach Todd Bowles entering the draft.
The big defensive line with Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson has gotten lots of attention during the offseason and training camp, along with the rookie safety tandem of Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye. But the development of Lee could be a major factor this season.
“Down there (at inside linebacker), you see a lot of things between running, passing, a lot of blocks and a lot reads and a lot of tips,” Bowles said. “So, it’s mentally for him, but he’s been more vocal, and it’s slowing down for him that way so hopefully the mental stuff makes his physical part a little easier.”
The 6-foot-2, 232-pound Lee spent a good part of the offseason improving his nutrition and stepping up his strength training while running hills to help with conditioning. He showed up to camp a bit more chiseled than a year ago.
“I don’t know if y’all can tell, but I look a little hefty right now,” Lee said with a grin. “Nah, I’m kidding.”
Lee also has reached out to Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly the past two offseasons, sharing tips on how to improve on and off the field. Harris was also someone Lee would routinely look to for advice.
Harris was cut in June, five days after the Jets reacquired Davis from Cleveland in exchange for safety Calvin Pryor. In the time since, Lee and Davis have worked on developing a rapport on the field.
“He’s smart and he’s athletic, and that’s what you want to have as an inside linebacker,” Davis said. “I can understand why he was drafted in the first round. If he can continue to get better day in and day out, sky’s the limit for him.”
NOTES: A day after Richardson’s latest criticism of former teammate Brandon Marshall, Bowles was clearly bothered by reporters’ questions about it. “I really don’t have time for a bunch of B.S.” he said. “It happened a year ago. We had six months to talk about it.” During a radio interview Monday, Richardson said Marshall was “drama queen-ish” last season and accused him of quitting on the team. When pressed, Bowles grew angry and used an expletive, and also threatened to cut short his daily news conference if there were further questions about it. “We’ve moved on from that,” he said. … LB Lorenzo Mauldin (back) and RBs Matt Forte (hamstring) and Bilal Powell (neck) sat out practice.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)