New York Jets linebacker Darron Lee has an opportunity to put last year's struggles behind him in a more expanded role this season. (Photo: Getty Images)
When the New York Jets abruptly and shockingly jettisoned long-time defensive leader David Harris, it left a huge void both on the field and in the locker room. So, with Gang Green reloading — or tanking, depending on the perspective — it’s time for someone to step up and help shoulder those responsibilities.
  
And for second-year linebacker Darron Lee, he nominates himself. The former Ohio State star said he’s confident in his abilities to lead, as he feels more comfortable in the playbook and being around the veterans.    
 
“Absolutely, I can,” Lee said when asked if he can have a more vocal presence this season. “I know the playbook pretty much backward and forwards now. I’m really comfortable. I feel way comfortable. Unlike last year [when I] felt lost on some stuff. I’m perfectly comfortable now.”
   
Lee wasn’t necessarily a bust last season, but the Jets and its ardent fan base were definitely disappointed in his up and down play. He admitted that things were kind of a blur in his maiden season, noting that he couldn’t recite “half of the terminology.”
   
Looking back on his rookie season, it’s easy to forget that the initial plan for Lee was to bring him along slowly, be an understudy at the middle linebacker position behind veteran stalwarts Harris and Erin Henderson and play as a hybrid safety in sub packages. But injuries to key players and Henderson’s departure opened the door for Lee and forced him into action.   
 
He made nine starts and played in 13 total games with mixed results. The season wasn’t a total failure and the extra playing time should serve him well, but Lee didn’t necessarily have the kind of impact a ballyhooed rookie is expected, especially since he was also dealing with an ankle injury for most of the season’s second half.  
 
Pro Football Focus ranked Lee 84th out of 87 overall linebackers. The unevenness in his performances was displayed in certain categories graded. According to the website, Lee had the highest tackling efficiency of any rookie linebacker, but suffered in other categories like against the run (63rd), pass coverage (75th), and pass rushing (46th). He only registered one sack and two passes defended – certainly areas of concern when pertaining to a guy who has elite speed and burst.
 
He’ll need to pick up his pace. Luckily for him, his confidence wasn’t shattered and head coach Todd Bowles also still believes in him, both physically and as a budding leader.
  
“It’s mentally for him,” Bowles said. “But he’s been more vocal these last few days and during the spring. It’s slowing down for him that way, so hopefully, the mental stuff makes his physical part a little easier.”  
 
Lee is noticeably bigger this camp and at 230 pounds, he still has the speed and quickness that made him a first-round pick. He had a tough time covering some of the more elite tight ends in the league and also overran a lot of running plays while showing a lot of missteps in pursuit.  
 
Those are correctable problems. And the fact that Bowles reasoned they’ll try and be more creative in utilizing Lee’s skill set bodes well for a rebound season in year No. 2. Add to the fact that Lee already has some experience calling defensive plays in certain sub packages, and is feeling more comfortable in the playbook — and opening his mouth among veteran players — and the Jets may have found the right guy to help fill Harris’s big shoes.