As part of the draft with Blake Bortles and Allen Robinson which was supposed to reinvigorate the Jacksonville Jaguars offense, Marqise Lee has played the forgotten man to Robinson and undrafted free agent Allen Hurns. Robinson and Hurns exploded onto the scene in 2015 while Lee fell down the depth chart due to injury. Both receivers remained locked in over Lee as starters in 2016, with Hurns receiving a contract extension which could keep him with the Jaguars for the foreseeable future. With the embarrassment that was the Jaguars offense in 2016, it was Lee who surprisingly emerged as the lone bright spot and arguably the best receiver on the team. While Bortles did his best Blaine Gabbert impersonation, Lee was the only receiver on the team not brought down by the quarterback’s play. Lee put up 63 catches for 851 yards and was somehow efficient in an offense whose top receiver (Robinson) caught only 48.7% of his targets. While Lee did not have an explosive statistical 2016, he showed traits of a quality NFL player, one who if not hampered by injuries can be quite productive.
While Lee’s raw yardage totals were similar to Robinson, the two players could not be more different in how they did their damage. Whereas Robinson is a deep threat and the jump ball specialist, Lee is quick and shifty, both before and after the catch. We would expect the jump ball specialist to be the productive receiver in an offense featuring Bortles throwing the ball terribly all over the field, but Lee was productive because he’s able to put himself in positions where there is simply no way for the defensive back covering him to get the ball. Lee was an excellent route runner coming out of college whose physical limitations were his potential undoing in the NFL, and until 2016 Lee had not shown the ability to set up defensive backs in man and find holes in zone coverage. Going into the 2016 season I had thought his inabilities were because he was worn down from the injuries and physically overmatched by NFL defensive backs, but what Lee showed in 2016 demonstrated he could succeed despite his limitations and the faults at quarterback. It may just have just been he had not had enough time on the practice field with Bortles to figure out timing and earn trust, prerequisites for Lee’s game.
In this snap, Lee allows the defender to get inside position and force him outside, all without showing the defender his intended route. Lee has a quick enough jump off the line of scrimmage that the defensive back is forced to respect his speed and the possibility of a deeper route, allowing Lee to make an impressive cut inside and completely turn the defensive back on his heels. Lee stops so suddenly and bursts towards the middle of the field so violently that the defender’s only solution is to flail an arm out to try and stop him. If Bortles had thrown the ball when he was supposed to (before the cut) instead of waiting to see Lee beat his man, Lee could have very easily taken the reception up the seam 30 yards for a touchdown. Instead, Bortles hesitates and then throws the ball behind Lee, who has to adjust to the ball and slow down before plucking it out of the air.
In this next play, both Lee’s ability to take advantage of holes in zone coverage as well as his after the catch ability are on display. Lee again cuts inside against a backpedaling defender, placing himself between the defender covering the tight end heading to the flat and safety five yards downfield. The corner running with Lee sinks into his zone, with Lee’s cut inside occurring before the safety rotates over. This time, Bortles trusts Lee on his cut, finding the hole in the zone with his pass as Lee becomes open. While the pass is not perfect, Lee has enough time to catch the ball and gather himself before the defender arrives, using his shiftiness with the ball in his hands to pick up 15 yards after the catch. Lee had 343 yards after the catch in 2016, good for 21st in the NFL. Again, he’s doing this all with a quarterback who completed only 48.7% of his targets to his primary receiver; a quarterback with the accuracy to lead Lee and set him up better with running lanes after the catch would surely raise this number.
While the above two plays do not make up the entirety of what Lee is a receiver, they do demonstrate that he has the traits of a player who can be successful in the NFL. While Lee has clear talent, looking at two impressive plays from 2016 does not show the full spectrum of who he is as a player (good and bad). When combined with his relative fantasy success in 2016 against the failings of the Jaguars offense around him, however, these plays present a path for continued fantasy success in future years. There’s not a large enough sample size of success from Lee to definitively say he will be either NFL or fantasy relevant in the long term, but after 2016 I feel comfortable enough with his development to project him in that direction.
With Hurns signed through 2021 and Robinson due a massive extension before his rookie deal is up after 2017, Lee will likely be playing elsewhere in 2018. While Lee could have a decent 2017, the return of Hurns as a full-time receiver after being injured for parts of 2016 – combined with a lack of progress from Bortles as a quarterback – will leave him with a WR3 fantasy ceiling. Ideally, he will go elsewhere in 2018 and play the 1B opposite a more physically talented option similar to Emmanuel Sanders in Denver or Golden Tate in Detroit. Like Lee, Sanders and Tate both rely on their quickness off the line of scrimmage and into breaks, though Sanders does far more of his damage down the field compared to Lee and Tate’s work around the line of scrimmage. Both benefited with moves to high volume, timing based offenses where they weren’t expected to be the primary option by their own teams and had equally talented wide receivers on the other side of the field to draw defensive coverage. Playing opposite DeAndre Hopkins in Houston, entering what will likely be unsettled receiving corps in Washington or Philadelphia, or emerging with the Steve Smith role in Baltimore are all possibilities that would vault Lee into yearly WR2 production. Even were he to join a more crowded depth chart, any quarterback upgrade over Bortles would see him flirting with WR3 numbers on an annual basis.
Should he remain in Jacksonville, his stock could drop – he will be playing with either Bortles, a stopgap option, or Bortles’ rookie successor. It would, however, be the result of him passing Hurns by the end of 2017, with Lee the WR2 on the Jaguars moving forward. Robinson is the ideal complement for Lee’s game, an imposing player who draws defensive attention downfield and opens up the middle of the field for Lee to operate. If Hurns continues to suffer from injuries or has a bout of poor play, he could be cut in 2018 with no dead money on the cap. With the only other dynasty relevant receiver on the roster 2017 fourth rounder Dede Westbrook, Hurns being cut would leave Lee and Robinson as the only pass catchers on the team worth throwing to.
Last year – in perhaps the worst case scenario for him outside of injury – Lee finished as the WR42 in PPR leagues, but only 26.9 points behind the WR24 (Robinson). In DLF’s startup ADP, Lee is being drafted as the WR68 overall, after Carlos Henderson, the 19th rookie off the board. I would comfortably trade the 2.07 he’s being selected against in the ADP for the potential that Lee builds on his productive 2016. In all likelihood, a late 2nd will land Lee in many leagues from owners who have soured on him after an injury-riddled start to his career. As an already proven NFL player with a high pedigree and a chance to choose his next destination in a year, I would much prefer to sit on Lee for a year in hopes he goes elsewhere and realizes his potential – or circumstances change in Jacksonville – than take a relative shot in the dark at a rookie. Buying now in dynasty as a lottery ticket in hopes of a situation upgrade is well worth the bet.