Florham Park N.J. - If there is one thing rookie Darron Lee can take away so far from being a professional linebacker, it is: "don't take the cheese." In other words, "don't take the bait." In simpler football terms, don't read a quarterback's eyes and get caught going in another direction. That is how big plays go against you. It is a learning process for Lee and he gets reminded not to "take the cheese," from veterans on both sides of the ball - David Harris and Brandon Marshall - on a daily basis.
The veterans' message resonated with Lee as no cheese was taken at practice on Monday. The rookie remained level-headed in the middle of the field, leading to interceptions off Ryan Fitzpatrick and Bryce Petty. Initially, it was Lee displaying poise in the defensive backfield when Fitzpatrick dropped back and tossed a ball from his back foot towards the sideline. The linebacker read the play perfectly and was there to haul in the interception. Lee's second pick of the afternoon came at the goal line when Petty attempted to force a ball into a tight window. It caught the attention of his teammates on defense as they applauded the goal-line stand. It was a much different reaction from the same defense who were cracking jokes with the rookie about his size all afternoon.
"I call him little dog," laughed defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson. "He's effective [at his weight], but I don't knock him for it. He'll be a contributor. Big time."
Little by little, the "little dog" is turning more heads. All training camp, Lee has showcased his speed and strength at linebacker. But, being that Lee has backed up his play with back-to-back solid performances against Jacksonville and Washington in the first two preseason games the rookie's potential is as high as he wants it to be. From this point, it is up to him to excel.
"I'm not satisfied with where I am," said Lee. "I have to keep working and keep practicing hard to try to get better."
It helps that Lee has learned under a core group of linebackers that know a thing or two about success. David Harris - for example - has been key to Lee's progression as an athlete and growth as an individual. Each day at practice, Lee picks Harris' brain to get a better understanding of the game. He asks questions, he takes notes, and once he gets on the field, the results show.
"[Harris] has been great. [He taught me] how to be a pro and how to have longevity in this league," said Lee. "He's been a huge help."
More frequently of late, Lee has been receiving more reps with the Jets first string players. By doing so, he is developing a stronger chemistry with the unit. That will be a huge factor in head coach Todd Bowles' decision if he believes Lee should start at linebacker on opening day. Asked if he would be comfortable with Darron Lee starting this year, Bowles simply said: "yes."
"I'm taking it day-by-day," said Lee. "[The first-team] is more rigorous. Guys here, they know what they are doing and they have a little more tricks up their sleeve. I'm still learning that aspect of it."
Lee's effort is shown on the practice field every day. His progression is evident and that can be attributed to the support he has been receiving from all of his teammates. While the speed is faster and the hits are harder with the first team, Lee knows that "if you give 100 percent effort all of the time, you'll be able to make a play and help your confidence."
Joe Barone is a staff writer for JetsInsider.com/NYJScout.com. He can be reached on Twitter (@28JoeBarone), or via email (email@example.com).null