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You’re Nuts: Which former Buckeye has had the most surprising NFL career?

Sometimes guys don’t pan out at the next level, and other times they perform even better.

NFL: Washington Football Team at New York Giants Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.

In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.

This week’s topic: Which former Buckeye has had the most surprising NFL career?

Josh’s Take: Darron Lee

As the NFL season winds down, it got us thinking about which former Buckeye’s NFL career has surprised us the most. And Gene, I can’t help but take a turn to Negative Town. Not because I’m a pessimist (although I am). Not because Ohio State produces a ton of busts (because they don’t). I find myself thinking of more negative examples, because I have not been wildly surprised by the success of many OSU draftees.

If I had to reach for a few examples of surprising success, I guess I would take a look at the New Orleans Saints. Michael Thomas never profiled as a record-breaking NFL receiver, but he worked his tail off and became that guy. Marshon Lattimore only had one great year at OSU, so I wasn’t sure if would become a consistent lockdown corner at the next level, but he certainly did. And lastly, I just didn’t see Malcolm Jenkins playing 26 years in the NFL. I thought he would be really solid, but I didn’t envision a career as long and as relevant as the one he has had. So, there have been some pleasant surprises along the way, but the negative ones stand out to me.

There have been busts — let’s not sugarcoat it. Art Schlichter and Vernon Gholston are legendary in their “bust-itude”, but is the story of either former Buckeye a real shocker? I don’t think so. I am not old enough to remember the entire Art Schlichter story, but I know enough to say that he more or less dug his own NFL grave — he’s out. Gholston was the sixth overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft, and finished his brief career without a single sack, but everybody in the world – minus the New York Jets front office – knew he was a workout warrior! It’s an unfortunate story, but not a surprising one, and I’m hopeful that Gholston is at home counting his millions right now.

So now that the easy ones are out of the way, let’s get down to brass tax. The former Buckeye whose NFL career has surprised me the most is a more recent player. He was a local (Columbus) product, and a bit of a throw-in recruit who became an Ohio State legend and National Champion. I am talking about Darron Lee.

Lee played both ways in high school, but never as a linebacker. He switched to that position prior to his second season at OSU and made an instant impact. The New Albany product was incredible as part of the 2014 National Championship team, racking up 80 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and 2 INTs. He also added two fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns, and was named the Defensive MVP of the 2015 Sugar Bowl. Lee had another stellar season in 2015 — one that caused him to rocket up NFL draft boards. He was taken 20th overall in the 2016 NFL draft, and I assumed he was well on his way to a productive NFL career.

I was woefully wrong... at least so far. Lee is still just 27 years old, and spent part 2021 on the Las Vegas Raiders’ practice squad, but the ship has likely sailed on his NFL career. The former Buckeye was a part-time starter as a rookie, before starting 15 games as a second-year player. He put up stats, but did not grade out particularly well. Lee totaled 167 tackles and four sacks during his first two seasons, but finished his second season with a 34.9 rating according to PFF — 87th out of 88 qualifying linebackers.

Lee started again in 2018 and picked off two passes during the opener (including a pick-6), but struggled with consistency and served a four-game suspension for PED use. It was the beginning of the end for his NFL career. The Jets declined his rookie option, and he spent the next three seasons bouncing around practice squads. Lee did receive a Super Bowl ring for being a part of the 2020 Kansas City Chiefs roster, but he did not play in the big game. Now, his professional future appears grim.

What surprises me the most about Lee’s lack of NFL success is that he absolutely fit the mold of the modern linebacker. He had exceptional speed and coverage skills. He was a willing tackler, and always found himself around the ball for Ohio State. Unfortunately, those skills never consistently translated to Sunday. There were also some maturity issues and the afore mentioned PED suspension.

Heading in to the 2022 NFL season, it seems like a longshot that Lee will ever make a meaningful impact again. Sure, he is young enough to keep playing, but we are over three years removed from his last tangible contribution to a team. Once an OSU legend, Lee was essentially out of the league after three seasons. To me, it is a stunning fall from football grace for the former Buckeye. I hope, that like many of my prognostications, I am proven wrong. I hope that Lee once again plays in the NFL, and does so at a relatively high level. But it would be a surprise, much like my own regarding his post-Ohio State career.

Gene’s Take: Terry McLaurin

Like Josh, I was tempted to go in the negative direction — not because Ohio State produces a ton of busts in the NFL, but because one of the more surprising professional careers, or lack thereof, to me was Dwayne Haskins. I thought for sure Haskins would be a star in the league, and I was upset when my New York Giants passed on him for Daniel Jones. He clearly had the arm talent to be a franchise quarterback in the NFL, but some maturity issues and a lack of getting a real chance in a dumpster fire of an organization in Washington sealed the fate of Haskins. He is currently a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but I dont have high hopes that they will give him the nod to replace Ben Roethlisberger next season.

That being said, the surprising career I am instead going with, this one in the positive direction, is that of Terry McLaurin.

McLaurin came to Ohio State by way of Indianapolis as the No. 36 wide receiver and a top-250 overall recruit in the 2014 class. Throughout his collegiate career in Columbus, McLaurin was always an incredibly solid wideout, but he was never the team’s star pass-catcher. From the jump, you could tell the tremendous amount of effort he put in day in and day out, originally making his hay as one of the Buckeyes’ top gunners on special teams before elevating himself to a productive member of the offense.

His best season offensively came in his senior year in 2018, wherein he hauled in 35 catches for 701 yards and 11 touchdowns. While very solid numbers, he finished third on Ohio State in receiving yards that season behind both Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill, and second in touchdowns behind Campbell. With Haskins at the helm and Ryan Day running the offense, it was the start of a new pass-heavy era in Columbus. Had McLaurin played at Ohio State anytime from 2019 to the present, he likely would have put up much more impressive statistics, as his career-high 35 receptions were nothing compared to 65-plus catches all three of the Buckeyes’ top receivers hauled in this past season in a much different offense.

That being said, Washington clearly liked what they saw out of McLaurin, selecting him with the 76th overall pick in the 3rd Round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Since that time, even with a revolving door of sub-par quarterbacks throwing him the ball, McLaurin has blossomed into of the league’s best wide receivers.

In his rookie season, which saw five different quarterbacks start at least one game for the then-Redskins, McLaurin was the lone bright spot on a 3-13 squad. He recorded a team-high 58 receptions for 919 yards (541 more than the next-highest receiver) and seven touchdowns. The man affectionately dubbed Scary Terry started 14 games in year one, and the rest has been history.

Still without a consistent starting quarterback, McLaurin has posted 1,000-yard seasons in each of the past two campaigns, becoming the first Washington player with consecutive 1000-yard seasons since 1994-96. While I always liked McLaurin at Ohio State, I certainly never saw him becoming one of the best wideouts at the next level. Scary Terry is a prime example of hard work paying off, and hopefully he gets a fat paycheck for his efforts in the near future — and a real quarterback!