Quiet TE Lee Remains True Team Player

Donald Lee is a quiet guy, but he's first and foremost a team guy. So when rising star Jermichael Finley usurped the No. 1 tight end position from Lee last season, no one heard a peep out of Lee. And when Lee, like virtually all backups on the roster, was asked to take on special teams duty during OTAs and mini-camp this spring, he didn't complain then either.

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"I've never been a selfish player," said Lee, now in his eighth year in the NFL. "I've always put the team first. I just want to do whatever it takes to help the team win the game. If that's playing special teams, I'm going to be an impact guy on special teams this year if that's what I have to do."

But that's not to say Lee isn't going to strive to be an impact tight end in 2010. Far from it. If anything, the emergence in 2009 of Finley and another young tight end, Spencer Havner, plus the addition this year of draft pick Andrew Quarless to the position group has re-dedicated Lee to proving his value.

He has to, first of all, because there may not be room for four tight ends on the roster. But he also must dispel the notion that he'll never again be the player who caught 48 passes for 575 yards and six touchdowns (plus another in the playoffs) in 2007.

Last year was a tough one for Lee. He caught 37 passes but for only 260 yards, an average of 7.0 yards per catch, down from 12.0 in his big year. He also had just one touchdown compared to the 11 of the previous two seasons combined, and he had a handful of dropped passes uncharacteristic for him, none worse than the fourth-and-goal pass late in the third quarter in Minnesota with the Vikings leading 28-14. It was a costly play, to say the least, in a big game on a national stage.

But just as Lee isn't going to create a stir about his role changing, he's also not going to dwell on the past. He was in Green Bay for every day of the offseason program beginning in mid-March with the same attitude and same work ethic since his career began as a fifth-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins back in 2003.

"I look at every year as a season to get better," Lee said. "Last year, I didn't have my best season. It was kind of up and down. I felt like I could have done a lot of things a lot better. So, that's what I'm working on this year.

"That's football. You're going to have your ups and downs. You just have to be able to keep a level head and stay focused. I feel like I've done that, and I've been working hard on every aspect of my game."

One is simply the fundamentals of catching the ball, which deserted Lee somewhat with those drops last year. The diagnosis from the coaching staff was that Lee was "fighting it," as offensive coordinator Joe Philbin termed it, letting the ball get to his body instead of catching it out in front with his hands. Philbin likened it to an infielder in baseball who doesn't charge a ground ball. Sometimes the ball can play you instead, and it's much tougher to make smooth, clean plays.

For catching passes, though, there's more to working on that than just standing in front of the JUGS machine and snatching balls being fired at high speed. It's also about timing, and getting downfield with the body in the right position so the hands can make the catch by themselves.

"We've been emphasizing the way we run routes and how the way we run the routes can help us get our eyes on the ball a little faster, a little sooner, and catch it in front of our eyes," tight ends coach Ben McAdoo said. "A lot of focus has been put on plucking it with our hands."

Lee's other fundamentals, such as blocking skills, remain sound. It's commonly said that blocking responsibilities are the hardest for a young tight end to learn, and with the combined NFL game experience of Finley (27 games), Havner (20) and Quarless (zero) nowhere near Lee's 109 games, his reliability in that area is a huge asset to the offense.

It also speaks again to his unselfishness, because there's certainly no external glory to be gained from taking on a defensive end or outside linebacker rather than running a pass route.

"I feel like my physical play helps the team out a lot," Lee said. "That's one of the things I did a lot of in college, so it's like second-nature to me. I feel I can help the team in the running game and the passing game. I'm just here to work hard and do whatever they ask me to do.

"If they want me to block, you better believe that's what I'm going to get done. If they want me to catch touchdowns, I'm going to get that done as well. I'm just going to continue to work hard, do whatever they ask me to do with a smile on my face and with great effort."

As far as catching touchdowns, the opportunities aren't likely to be as plentiful with Finley (55 catches, 676 yards, 5 TDs in '09) around. But neither McAdoo nor Philbin sees any reason to just write Lee off as he turns 30 at the end of training camp.

"I think the common trend is to look and say Finley had a breakout year, Lee averaged seven-point-something yards per catch, so boy, he must be a player in decline," Philbin said. "But just like he has the other five years he's been here, he's a competitive guy, he's in excellent shape, he's a good football player. He's made a lot of contributions here in the past five years, and he's competing very hard and had a real good spring.

"Again, as a player especially when you've had some of the success that he's had over the past, it probably wasn't easy watching another guy at your position make some bigger-type plays and get the ball a little bit more. But overall, he's a very sound player, and I look for him to come back."

If that includes backing up Finley and reprising a role on special teams that saw him make 15 coverage tackles in 2006, that's fine by Lee. He'll do it all quietly, with the team in mind.

"I don't really focus on the personal goals," he said. "I'd like to win a championship this year. This game is all about team, and I'm a strong believer if you continue to work hard and win games, anybody and everybody will get what they want.

"I don't ever go around saying I want to have 50 catches or this or that. I just work hard and stay humble and try to stay focused on the big picture, and that's to win a championship."

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