Even when it’s not Sunday, the Jets can’t stop losing.
Darron Lee’s season ended Friday as the inside linebacker was suspended four games, effective immediately, for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. With four games left in the season, Lee won’t be able to return to the active roster until the day after the Jets’ Week 17 game against the Patriots.
The 2016 first-round pick has put together a solid season, but the latest development opens the door for questions about his future with the team. The suspension makes his 2019 salary of $1.8 million no longer guaranteed, which would allow the Jets to cut him this offseason if they choose. They are also facing a decision by May on whether to pick up his fifth-year option for 2020.
Lee’s suspension will cost him about $325,000 and the opportunity to make a strong final impression heading into the offseason. It serves as another blow to the Jets (3-9), who are playing out the string after officially being eliminated from playoff contention Thursday night.
The league announced Lee’s suspension a few hours after head coach Todd Bowles addressed the media. Lee was limited in practice Wednesday for what the team called a non-injury-related issue, but was listed as a full participant Thursday and Friday.
Lee’s third season in the NFL started with a bang, when he recorded the first two interceptions of his career, including a pick-six, in the Jets’ Week 1 win over the Lions. He later picked off Andrew Luck in Week 6, the last time the Jets won a game, to take the team lead in interceptions. Lee also is second on the team with 99 tackles to go with six tackles for loss.
Kevin Pierre-Louis — who started the season with a one-game suspension for violating the substance-abuse policy — and Neville Hewitt could get an opportunity to fill in for Lee over the final four games, beginning Sunday at Buffalo. Both have been mainly special-teams contributors, combining for 26 defensive snaps this season while Lee had played 97 percent of the snaps through 12 games. Linebacker Anthony Wint could also be summoned from the practice squad to take Lee’s roster spot.
While Lee struggled as a rookie in 2016, particularly in pass coverage, he made his biggest strides this season while serving as the Jets’ defensive signal caller along with Avery Williamson. Last week, inside linebackers coach Mike Caldwell lauded Lee for the progress he had made this year.
“He’s making his progress in being consistent,” Caldwell said. “He’s more consistent than he has been. That’s something we continue to focus on with him. Just continuing to be consistent on making plays, being in the right spots and doing the things we ask him to do.”
The 24-year-old was inactive for one game last year after being late to a Saturday practice. Before the 2017 season, Lee was involved in an incident at a concert, where he was seen on video having an argument with his girlfriend and having to be pushed away by teammate Leonard Williams. No charges were filed and Lee was later cleared by the NFL.
Lee is just the latest Jet to be levied a suspension. In addition to Pierre-Louis, wide receiver ArDarius Stewart (performance-enhancing drugs) and cornerback Rashard Robinson (substance abuse) began the season on the suspended list. Stewart has since been cut.