There was some Heisman buzz surrounding Southern California receiver Marqise Lee before the season, and with good reason.
Lee had burst onto the scene as a true freshman in 2011, catching 73 passes for 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns, and somehow improved on that stat line as a sophomore, hauling in 118 passes for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns and winning the Biletnikoff Award for the nation’s best receiver.
So yes, if any receiver had a chance to end the Heisman drought for receivers ― which stretches back to 1991 ― it was Lee. But while knee, shoulder and leg injuries ended up marring what should have been a terrific junior campaign, they did not keep Lee from declaring for the 2014 NFL Draft, which figures to beone of the deepest
“There are some questions about his durability because I don’t think he’s been 100 percent since his freshman year,” said Mark Dulgerian, the head West Coast scout for OptimumScouting.com. “But I think he absolutely has the talent to be a No. 1 receiver.”
Dulgerian said Lee could land almost anywhere in the first round once explosive junior receiver Sammy Watkins of Clemson goes off the board.
“With Watkins, you can’t deny that kind of talent,” Dulgerian said. “He’s clearly the No. 1 guy in this draft.”
But Lee, a sprinter on USC’s track team, is no slouch. At 6 feet and 195 pounds, Lee possesses great quickness and agility and has chalked up a number of his yards in the West Coast offense by running after the catch, a skill the Chiefs ― who desperately need another downfield threat to pair with Dwayne Bowe ― covet in coach Andy Reid’s version of the same offense.
“He has experience in that type of offense,” Dulgerian said. “He’s a good fit mostly because he understands schemes really well, he can read defenses and he can create after the catch. He’s definitely one of the better run-after-catch guys in the draft this year. That’s what the West Coast offense is asking of its receivers.”
In many ways, Lee reminds Dulgerian of a more explosive version of Robert Woods, Lee’s former teammate who was drafted in the second round by the Buffalo Bills last April.
“I think he’s a better athlete that Robert Woods is and can take the top off a defense better than Robert Woods did,” Dulgerian said. “But he’s very similar.”
And for all the questions about Lee’s durability, Dulgerian says few are more competitive.
“What makes him special to me, compared to guys with similar skill sets, is he gets stronger as the game goes on,” Dulgerian said. “Usually you talk about running backs doing that, but no matter what you have him run ― fly sweeps, quick slants, nine routes ― he’s getting stronger and stronger as the game goes on. And he’s a guy you can count on for 60 minutes and he doesn’t seem to get tired. He’s really well conditioned.”This is the type of intangible that Dulgerian says could potentially solidify Lee as a first-round pick in a stacked class for wide receivers. But whoever drafts Lee will have to feel comfortable with his injury history, average stature and good (but not great) measurables. “I don’t think Marqise will be for everybody,” Dulgerian said. “Some teams want their No. 1 receiver to be a big “go up and get it” guy.” In the same vein, Dulgerian also has some concerns about Lee’s consistency and ability to win contested balls against the bigger corners in the NFL. “I do think he’s got really good hands, but he drops some easy ones turning upfield before he secures the football, and I don’t think he’s the strongest as far as being able to shield guys and win 50-50 balls on a consistent basis in the NFL,” Dulgerian said. “That’s why I don’t think he’d be ready to start immediately as a No. 1 guy, but he’s flashed the ability to do it, and as he gets stronger and bulks up a little bit, he’ll be even better.” By declaring for the draft after a disappointing junior season, Lee is betting that teams will see the same room for growth that Dulgerian sees, not to mention all the promise he showed his first two years in college. “In a nutshell, I think he’s definitely got the ceiling ― which I think he’ll reach ― to be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL,” Dulgerian said. “Initially, I don’t think he’ll be ready to be that ― a lot of rookies aren’t unless they’re elite guys. But he’s just got to stay healthy and be consistent with his focus on the field and he’ll be fine.”