Ryan Wood and Pete Dougherty discuss inside and outside linebacker prospects, including Jaylon Smith. Ryan Wood and Pete Dougherty | USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
INDIANAPOLIS – There are plenty of linebackers at the NFL scouting combine who dwarf the media podium when they give interviews. They tower. They hulk. They look like professional body builders.
Darron Lee is not one of them.
Ten years ago, he could have been a safety. Lee played that position — and quarterback — in high school before arriving at Ohio State. He weighed fewer than 200 pounds when he got on campus. When he weighed in at the combine Friday, Lee said, he only weighed 232.
“Not too worried about that,” Lee said. “I usually play at 235. I just didn’t really have a big breakfast today. A little bit nervous.”
In the past, his weight would be a problem. Too small for linebacker, too big be a defensive back. The classic “tweener” label would’ve been applied.
Lee fits a new model. Welcome to the economy version of an NFL linebacker, a sleek, new design that fits seamlessly into a modern, pass-happy league. When asked whether he expects to be drafted in the first round, Lee shot back a one-word answer.
“Absolutely,” he said.
Why such brazen confidence? Because in man-to-man defense, Lee can cover running backs, tight ends and even “speedy receivers” like a safety.
“Linebacker is changing in the league, to be honest with you,” Lee said. “A lot of smaller, not bigger guys. The game is getting faster, and you’re going to need a guy to cover. You started to see that a lot this year in the league.
“The quarterback is getting the ball out quick and making linebackers run. That’s all I know. That’s all I’ve been seeing on Sundays.”
Lee said the “stars are aligned” for him to crack the first round as an undersized linebacker. Maybe those stars point to Green Bay. The Packers have made no secret about their plans to move Clay Matthews back to outside linebacker. They want their best pass rusher to line up on the edge.
Matthews moved to inside linebacker midway through the 2014 season to bolster the Packers' porous run defense. It’s the lack of a coverage linebacker that has prevented him from returning outside.
Jake Ryan showed he’s an active, run-stuffing inside linebacker during his rookie season. He’s capable of playing in the Packers' favored nickel package, but only when Matthews lines up beside him. Matthews is the only linebacker on the Packers' roster capable of meeting the coverage requirements to play in the dime.
That’s where Lee could be valuable as the Packers' potential first-round pick. The Packers certainly realize what the second-team all-American could mean to their defense. Lee told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin he had a formal interview with the Packers in Indianapolis. He already knows where he’d fit in the Packers' base 3-4 system.
“I’d be an inside 'backer, for sure,” Lee said. “I know they’re trying to move Clay to the outside. I’m willing to do that for them.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said he plans to move Matthews to outside linebacker next season regardless of the defensive personnel around him. He saw in Super Bowl 50 how much a dynamic pass rusher can impact a game, watching Denver Broncos edge rusher Von Miller make the biggest game of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s life a miserable experience.
Matthews is the rare pass rusher who can make opposing quarterbacks miserable from snap to snap. But not when he’s playing off the line of scrimmage. His 6 ½ sacks last season were tremendous for an inside linebacker, but they were also the second-fewest in his seven-year career.
“He’s going to start at outside linebacker,” McCarthy said. “I don’t know about the percentage. Whether some people call it a spinner, some people call it a rover. However you want to illustrate it, where he’ll come inside and do different things as a pass rusher.”
A “spinner” or “rover” is a stand-up linebacker who roams the field before the snap. He’s versatile enough to rush the passer from multiple gaps, never lining up in the same place. That’s how McCarthy wants to use Matthews in 2016.
Part of that pre-snap roaming could take Matthews to inside linebacker. There are some benefits of Matthews playing inside linebacker that McCarthy doesn’t want to lose, particularly his ability to rush from inside.
“Clay is an impact player,” McCarthy said. “His starting position will be outside linebacker. It’s important for us as a coaching staff to make sure we’re giving him opportunities to make an impact. How much he’ll go in there, time will tell. We haven’t started the installs yet.
“There’s definitely schemes and offenses that you might want him in there for a matchup purpose. That’s still all on the table. The experience of having Clay in there and what’s come out of it, we don’t want to throw that all away, either.”
McCarthy said the toughness Matthews brought to the inside linebacker position surprised some teammates. Everyone inside Lambeau Field knew Matthews was a “dynamic player,” McCarthy said, but his hard-nosed edge was unexpected.
Lee wouldn’t be able to duplicate Matthews’ ability to engage and shed interior blocks. He’s only been an inside linebacker for three years, still plenty raw. Speed, not strength, is his forte. Lee said he wants to improve his technique, his awareness, his ability to communicate from the middle of a defense.
Despite his size, Lee would be protected at inside linebacker playing alongside Ryan. He wouldn’t be the first undersized inside linebacker, either. Deone Buccanon is 20 pounds lighter than Lee, and he’s had success as an inside linebacker with the Arizona Cardinals.
“He plays with a high motor,” Lee said, fully aware that Buccanon is the prototype allowing his stars to align. “He’s an example of the speed that you’re going to need to play this game. Like I said before, this game is getting a lot faster. He resembles that. He’s a little slimmer than maybe what people say is the prototypical linebacker, but he plays the game fast. He plays aggressive.”
Matthews isn’t getting any younger. He turns 30 in May, startling for a player who arrived in Green Bay as a 23-year-old rookie in 2009. There has been plenty of wear and tear on his body over the years. He has battled thumb, ankle, hamstring, rib and knee injuries, among others.
A move away from inside linebacker might help Matthews’ longevity. Inside, players have to fend off blocks from all sorts of angles, often head to head from crashing guards, centers and fullbacks. McCarthy said teams had a tendency to run right at Matthews last season, knowing sideline-to-sideline range was among his best traits.
McCarthy doesn’t think the wear and tear of inside linebacker is enough to force Matthews back outside.
“It isn’t like we’re playing the 3-4,” McCarthy said, “and he’s running up smacking the guard 45 plays in a row. Like the traditional 3-4.”
No, defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ favored formation is nickel. That means linebackers must cover. They need enough speed to play well in open space.
McCarthy admitted Matthews was forced to play inside linebacker because of defensive deficiencies. The Packers didn’t have anyone else who could handle the job. Truth is, Matthews remains their only three-down inside linebacker, even with Sam Barrington returning from a foot injury.
The 2016 draft will have a rare crop of talented linebackers. When it comes to the Packers’ needs, Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith is perhaps the best match of talent and fit. Smith, who won’t be available for the start of the season because of a knee injury, can be used similarly to Matthews. He has the versatility to rush quarterbacks, defend the run and drop into coverage.
Smith said he had a “great” interview with the Packers in Indy, and he was especially enamored with McCarthy. But he may not be available when the Packers’ first pick arrives at No. 27. Lee would be a more likely option. He would provide a much-needed athletic upgrade, and perhaps rare coverage ability.
“I can play at (my) weight,” Lee said. “I have really no concerns about it. As long as I’m able to play fast, that’s all that matters to me. Getting more speed to the defense.”
firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood