Since being drafted eight months ago, rookie LB Darron Lee has done everything in his power to expedite his growth process.
"Every game I look at as a learning experience," Lee said. "Every instance there's always a learning point. Whether that be jawing or being too hyped up, there's always these little things that keep on hitting. It's every single day here at practice too, but I learn a lot in the game. I have a big learning curve."
His welcome to the NFL lesson came from WR Brandon Marshall during one of the first practices in training camp: "Don't take the cheese." Last week's teaching point? Relax a little.
"I was more hyped up than normal," Lee said. "He [head coach Todd Bowles] was right. He pulled me for a couple plays and told me to cool down. I did eventually and finally settled down."
Defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers echoed similar sentiments to Bowles, explaining that Lee's over-excitement led to a couple of big runs. The Ohio State product racked up five tackles and helped hold 49ers RB Carlos Hyde to just 52 yards in the second half.
Following the Jets' 23-17 overtime victory in Santa Clara, Bowles said Lee would be fine and went on to explain the rookie is"great" in regard to being receptive to coaching.
"It helps me calm down to some extent," Lee said. "I play more relaxed and way more confident because I know he [Bowles] and my position coach [ILBs coach Mike Caldwell] are always in my corner. The defensive staff is always in my corner. But Coach Bowles is teaching me every step of the way because we have a young unit. We have a lot of guys with their heads in the right direction so I definitely like the future."
Bowles hasn't been shy of throwing the 22-year-old into the fire. In training camp, Bowles said that Lee doesn't panic. In Week 2, Lee got his first NFL start. Since, he's played 100% of defensive snaps in three games and is sometimes responsible for calling plays in sub packages.
"I act a lot older than my age — even sometimes I forget I'm a rookie," said Lee, who is only in his third year playing linebacker. "Even David [Harris] reminds me to relax and calm down. I feel like I play this game like there really is no tomorrow. I always feel that way in every decision I make."
Despite the number of plays Lee has made over the course of the season, the one that sticks out to him is one he didn't make. In Week 12 against the Patriots, he was covering RB James White who barely converted on a key fourth-and-4. While games are not won and lost on a single play, Lee takes every individual error to heart.
"If I make a mistake like that fourth-and-4, it feels like life and death to me because we could have won that game if I made that play," Lee said. "That's how I view it. I feel like I let my teammates down on that play because that's how I treat every single play. It goes hand-in-hand. I'm always trying to accelerate the learning curve to be the best I can possibly be for my teammates right now. But then I have to keep in mind to be patient because I'm a rookie."
If history repeats itself, big production and impact plays could be on the horizon for Lee — he was named Sugar Bowl Defensive MVP in his first year starting for the Buckeyes. A two-year starter for Urban Meyer, Lee ranked second on the team in tackles for loss and sacks in that time. He also scored three defensive touchdowns in addition to his three interceptions and two forced fumbles.
The 6'1", 232-pounder has been a "sponge" this season, taking in every piece of information and learning from his mishaps.
"Once it's in my memory, I'll never forget it," Lee said. "I never will. That's just how I am and I'll take that going forward in my career. So I can help my teammates and my linemen in positioning because I remember this play from last year. I'm wired like that."
Lee isn't the only rookie receiving playing time this season. Third-round OLB Jordan Jenkins has started eight games and fourth-round CB Juston Burris has been a staple on special teams for the majority of the season. However, Burris received more playing time on defense, playing in 88% of the defensive snaps against San Francisco.
"Juston and Jordan did a hell of a job," Lee said of his rookie counterparts. "Just seeing their growth as players is great, but knowing their mindset of where they're trying to go, I know they're with me on that. They know I got their back and I know they got mine. That's all we need going forward. We're just going to keep adding people to the party and if you're not with that, if you're not trying to go along with that train of winning ballgames, then this is not the place for you."