The New York Jets addressed their need for speed with a versatile, athletic playmaker.
Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee was selected with the No. 20 overall pick in the NFL draft Thursday night, joining an already-imposing defense that finished fourth overall in the NFL last season.
Lee had 12 sacks in two seasons with the Buckeyes as an aggressive and explosive outside linebacker, but Jets coach Todd Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan characterized the 6-foot-2, 232-pounder as an inside linebacker who could play multiple spots on the defense.
"What intrigued us the most about him from a scouting standpoint is he's a younger player who's very athletic," Maccagnan said of the 21-year-old Lee, who was a redshirt sophomore last season. "I think he brings the ability to potentially improve our overall team speed."
That was cited by both Bowles and Maccagnan throughout the offseason as a key, and their selection of Lee on Thursday night addressed that need.
"We felt he has ability to be a three-down player for us, on both running and passing downs," Maccagnan said.
Lee became the fifth Ohio State player drafted in the first round this year, joining former teammates Joey Bosa (No. 3), Ezekiel Elliott (No. 4), Eli Apple (No. 10) and Taylor Decker (No. 16).
Bowles said Lee, who ran the 40-yard dash in a blazing 4.47 seconds at the NFL combine, will play immediately in the team's nickel defense, and back up Erin Henderson at inside linebacker to start off, but could also be effective outside down the line.
"He's a very good pressure guy, a very good cover guy," Bowles said. "He runs sideline to sideline."
Lee visited the Jets and worked out for them in the weeks leading up to the draft, but was unsure if New York would take him with the 20th pick. UCLA's Myles Jack and Alabama's Reggie Ragland were other linebackers available when the Jets went on the clock.
"I just knew I had a great visit," he said during a conference call.
The selection marked the seventh straight year in which the Jets picked a defensive player in the first round, with the last offensive player going in the opening round quarterback Mark Sanchez in 2009.
Bowles isn't concerned about outside perception that Lee is perhaps a bit smaller than some traditional linebackers. He added that he's happy with Lee's current weight and doesn't need him to be 240 or 250 pounds.
"The game's more spread out now and it's not a big power game like it used to be," Bowles said. "You need a bunch of faster guys. We've got bigger guys down there (on the D-line), so we need a guy who can run around."
Bowles added that Lee needs a little work on his technique in coverage, but his on-field smarts and overall versatility make him an immediate asset.
Lee was a quarterback, wide receiver, safety and return specialist at New Albany High School in Ohio, and was also a track star. He came to Ohio State as a safety, but was forced to redshirt as a freshman because of an injury. Lee was then converted to linebacker, where he became a starter for the 2014 national champion Buckeyes.
A lot of speculation swirled around whether the Jets would target a quarterback such as Memphis' Paxton Lynch since Ryan Fitzpatrick remains a free agent. The sides remained in a contract stalemate, but Maccagnan has said all offseason that the team's focus is on bringing back Fitzpatrick, who set a franchise record with 31 touchdown passes last season. The GM insisted his feeling had not changed Thursday night despite a published report earlier in the day that suggested Fitzpatrick could opt to not play at all rather than take what his side perceives as a low-ball offer from New York.
Maccagnan also indicated that the Jets would not be trading Pro Bowl defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, who received the team's franchise tag and is looking for a long-term extension. Last week, Maccagnan said the Jets were not actively seeking out trade partners for Wilkerson, who appears likely to play this season for New York under the tag's worth of $15.7 million.