After becoming the first freshman under Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder to record two sacks in a single game, Elijah Lee’s role changed in his junior season, the final year in his Wildcats career.
Lee finished his freshman year playing in nine games and recording 4½ sacks. He followed that up with more playing time (13 games) and more production as a sophomore, recording 80 tackles – more than quadrupling his freshman tackle total – and five sacks.
But when it came to his junior season, he wasn’t asked to blitz as much.
“Due to personnel,” Lee said after his first full rookie minicamp practice with the Minnesota Vikings. “It kind of changed that. I was more of a linebacker and didn’t play at that D-end situation as much.”
Lee made the switch from a defensive end in high school to a two-time All-Big 12 linebacker under Snyder, but he admits his drop in sacks might have contributed to him lasting until the seventh round of the draft before the Vikings selected him.
His role in Minnesota has yet to be carved out, but could have an opportunity to compete with Emmanuel Lamur, Edmond Robinson and possibly others for the vacancy left at weakside linebacker when veteran Chad Greenway retired.
The Vikings typically have sent either Anthony Barr or Eric Kendricks on blitzes, and last year Greenway was the linebacker that came off the field on third-down passing situations. Lee, however, knows that sack numbers help get linebackers paid in today’s NFL.
“Yeah, the pass rushers, that’s what is getting paid a lot – the Von Millers and stuff like that,” Lee said. “That’s a hard position because you can’t find too many guys that rush like that and when you do, you’re lucky. You see it all around the NFL. That’s just one way to get into the NFL. If you’re good at that in college, I think you’ll have a pretty successful career.”
In 518 passing-down snaps as a senior, Lee rushed the passer 15.8 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus, registering only one sack, five hits and seven hurries. That put him just in the top half of those players tracked in pass-rush productivity.
But making the switch to linebacker in college put a new challenge in front of Lee.
“Just reading everything inside the box – the pulls, the powers and just dropping back in-depth and recognizing the whole game. Seeing the whole field and knowing what everybody is doing,” he said. “At D-end, you just have to worry about being outside and worry about some blitzes, but as a linebacker you have to know everything that’s going on.”
“… But, at the same time, [linebacker] gives you more opportunities to hit more moves than you would out of a three-point stance.”
For now, Lee’s focus has to be on improving, making the team and perhaps starting out as a special-teams contributor. However, he proved at Kansas State that his speed should allow him to be a solid linebacker in coverage.
“I think I can come in and help. That’s something I take pride in, not being the biggest linebacker, just being a rangy guy that can help cover and run sideline to sideline,” he said. “Now, I can stick in there in the run if I need to, but my specialty or the best part of my game is coverage.”
Eventually, perhaps he can get back to being a blitzing linebacker with some frequency. But in this early stage of his rookie season, it’s about hitting the books – or rather the tablet – and making sure he knows where he is supposed to be.
“You get an iPad and everything is in there and they tell you Install One is going in tomorrow so go ahead and look at this and we talk about it a little bit,” he said. “But you’re sitting in your room and I spent probably three or four hours, just looking at it, writing in my notebook, looking at it, writing in my notebook and then asking as many questions as I could.”
For Vikings fans, there will be many more questions asked about the open linebacker position and if Lee can fit in there. The questions about him getting back to being a blitzing linebacker are likely on hold for now.