Over the course of the offseason, you'll read plenty of winners and losers articles recapping the most recent NFL draft. You’ll read about analysis of individual picks, total draft hauls, and everything beyond in between. Though such articles are staples even here on this very website, we certainly understand that, at this point, these are just names on a page, and the real winning and losing of each selection is done on the field with helmets and pads on.
I preface this current article in that light because sometimes it’s not about what’s thought of you on draft night; sometimes it’s not even about how you perform with the first team that gives you a chance. Sometimes the early parts of a young career are simply about finding your way and your spot.
That’s exactly what it was for pass rusher Romeo Okwara.
Okwara didn’t see his name called in the 2016 NFL Draft and went undrafted. After the draft, he signed with the New York Giants, where he played sparingly for two seasons. In 2018, he was waived by the Giants just before their first game but was picked up by the Detroit Lions the day after.
In his two years with the Giants, Okawra started just four games and recorded just one sack. But with the Lions, it’s like everything began to click.
After picking up his responsibilities in his new defense, Okwara started 14 games and recorded a team-high 7.5 sacks. But the following season Okwara was an afterthought, and though he played in 14 games, he started just one and recorded only 1.5 sacks. It looked like that 2017 season was going to be an outlier. That was, until 2020.
In 2020, Okwara once again became a full-time starter. He played in 16 games with nine starts and had a team-leading 10 sacks. As a reward for leading the team in sacks two of the last three seasons, Okwara signed a three-year, $39 million contract this past offseason. But he did so under new leadership, as former head coach Matt Patricia was replaced by new head coach Dan Campbell—and under him, defensive line coach Todd Wash. Earlier this offseason, Campbell and Wash told the media the Lions would be switching to a 3-4 base defense, and that Okwara specifically would be switching to outside linebacker.
“With outside linebackers, we look for three different characteristics," Wash said. "Obviously, you’ve got to be able to rush the passer. We’re looking for somebody that can set the edge. The rest of us will build a wall inside to help stop the run and knock them back. And then third is they need to be serviceable in coverage. That’s what we’re looking for when it comes to outside linebackers. [Okwara and fellow pass rusher Trey Flowers] are] athletic to do what we ask them to do and I think you’re going to see both of them elevate their game."
The change shouldn’t be too big of an adjustment for Okwara. In his two most successful seasons, Okwara lined up as a “LEO” or “REO” pass rusher most of the time. Such a position is a two-point stance outside linebacker that primarily attacks the line of scrimmage (fewer responsibilities in coverage than that of a traditional outside linebacker label). In 2018, Okwara lined up at LEO/REO 396 out of 695 snaps (56%), and in 2020 he lined up in those spots 548 out of 742 snaps (74%).
Okwara will be an important asset to the Lions’ defensive front. As for what to expect production-wise from him, Okwara should have the most streamlined path to a starting role as a pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker. Repeating as a double-digit sack player is tough to do, but even if he finishes with around 7-10 sacks, Okwara will be an important part of the Lions’ defensive transition in 2021.
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