By Chris Emma–
(CBS) With Ohio State setting a record with 14 players at the NFL Combine, there was plenty of banter as to which Buckeye would run the fastest 40-yard dash.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott figured it would be receiver Braxton Miller, while defensive end Joey Bosa picked Elliott as his choice. The Buckeyes had their quarterback, running back, three receivers, a cornerback and two safeties at the combine, but it was a linebacker whose 40 time impressed the most.
Linebacker Darron Lee ended up tying Elliott for best Buckeye time in the 40, posting an outstanding mark of 4.47 seconds. Lee is 6-foot-1 and 232 pounds, matching the top running back on the board for wheels, running the best 40 for a linebacker since 2006.
Meet the next generation of NFL linebacker.
“Linebackers are changing,” Lee said at the NFL Combine. “A lot smaller, they’re not much bigger guys. The game’s getting faster, and (teams) need guys to cover.”
Lee pointed out that he’s a first-round pick due to his passion for the game and work ethic. That was said before his 40-yard dash, plus earning the top broad jump and 20-yard shuttle time at his position. Scouts were left drooling.
NFL types are looking for linebackers with speed — players who can drop into coverage and make a play. This is a passing league, with defenses needing to adjust. Lee’s the kind of player scouts are seeking.
“It’s a perfect transition,” Lee said. “The stars aligned in that aspect.”
Last season at Ohio State, Lee posted 80 tackles, including 16 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks. He projects as a 4-3 weak-side linebacker in the NFL, and some project him going to the Bears at No. 11 overall, including Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller.
Lee also has the skills and athleticism as an inside linebacker that Bears coordinator Vic Fangio can maximize in his defense. Leeplays with great instincts and is a terrific tackler — but it’s those wheels that still stand out above all.
“A lot of teams are looking for speed,” Lee said. “I feel that’s what I’ll be able to do.”
The Bears are in position to pick from many defensive playmakers at No. 11 overall, with the likes of DeForest Buckner, Vernon Hargreaves, A’Shawn Robinson and more perhaps being available.
Lee’s the kind of player who can make a dramatic difference for the Bears’ rebuilding defense, adding a dynamic playmaker to a position of great need. Chicago saw the struggles of linebackers Shea McClellin and Christian Jones last season as part of its greatest defensive disappointment.
There’s more to Lee than just his athleticism. He plays with a natural passion that fuels his game.
“That’s what I’m all about,” he said. “That’s what I’ve always been about.”
Bears general manager Ryan Pace has explained that his team needs playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. Following an exceptional combine showcase, Lee will be rising up many draft boards — likely the Bears’ too.