When the New York Jets handed a record-setting contract to free-agent linebacker C.J. Mosley, it fueled immediate speculation about the future of 2016 first-round pick Darron Lee. His days were thought to be numbered.
Nearly two months later, Lee is still a member of the team, having made it through the 2019 NFL draft without being traded. Still, there's a feeling around the league that he will be playing elsewhere in 2019.
My take: Why the rush to send him off?
Lee has improved in each of his first three seasons and, though he no longer is a starter, he still has the ability to contribute in sub packages. He can run and cover, and run-and-cover linebackers have value in today's NFL. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is a creative coach who once bragged he has more than 40 different fronts in his playbook. Surely, he can find a niche role for Lee.
"Darron has played and done some good things for us," Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan said at the conclusion of the draft, dodging a question on Lee's future. "We'll see how this unfolds going forward. I think we have some very good competition at a lot of positions. We have very good depth at a lot of positions. We'll see how it unfolds going forward."
Hardly a strong endorsement. The Jets have until Friday to make a decision on Lee's fifth-year option, approximately a $10 million salary in 2020 (guaranteed for injury only). It would be their biggest upset since the 2010 playoff win against the New England Patriots if they exercise the option. It wouldn't be good business, but that doesn't mean they should trade him.
Unless Lee starts moping about his demotion and becomes a distraction -- not impossible, considering his moody personality -- it pays to keep him around unless a worthwhile trade emerges. And we're not talking about a late-round 2020 draft pick; who cares about that? A fair return would be a veteran cornerback (the Minnesota Vikings' Trae Waynes?) or an experienced center -- two needs the Jets failed to adequately address in the draft.
Otherwise, what's the point of dealing Lee? Money isn't an issue. His 2019 salary-cap number ($3.25 million) is manageable, and his base salary ($1.84 million) is no longer guaranteed because of his four-game suspension for substance abuse at the end of last season. By rule, the guarantee was voided by the suspension.
The Jets can keep him on the cheap, and deploy him in a role that fits his skill set -- nickel linebacker. With the Cleveland Browns last season, Williams ran a total of 747 snaps in nickel, ninth-most in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In a 4-2-5 alignment, he could use Mosley and Lee as his linebackers, with Lee replacing Avery Williamson in that package. Williamson is a hard-nosed, north-south linebacker, but he struggles in coverage. Lee improved last season in that area, recording the first three interceptions of his career (one for a touchdown).
Let's be clear: Lee hasn't met expectations as a first-round pick, but he's only 24 years old and still has a chance to be a productive player if he matures and commits himself.
The Jets added inside-linebacker depth by drafting Minnesota's Blake Cashman in the fifth round. He's a lot like Lee in that he's undersized (6-foot-1, 237 pounds) and runs well (4.50 in the 40-yard dash). They also have veteran Neville Hewitt, who did a respectable job when replacing Lee during his suspension. As Maccagnan said, they have good depth behind Mosley and Williamson.
One thing about Williams, though: He likes to employ a big rotation, utilizing as many players as possible. Unless the Jets get an offer they can't refuse, Lee should be part of it.