Romeo Okwara was an afterthought entering the 2018 NFL season. The defensive end failed to make the New York Giants 53-man roster and was claimed off of the scrap heap by Detroit days before the season kicked off. He did not feature in the team’s Week 1 destruction against the New York Jets and was not supposed to be much more than a depth piece entering the season.
The third year undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame was a revelation in Detroit, though. He earned 7.5 sacks in 2018, after only earning one in his first two NFL seasons combined. Statistically he put together a great season, but do the stats tell the whole story for the Lions edge rusher?
Despite the high sack total he put up last season, Okwara failed to regularly pressure opposing quarterbacks. A lot of his sacks came on plays where the quarterback walked into him because of interior pressure from Devon Kennard on the other side of the formation.
A lot of his pass rush snaps looked like this:
The majority of his failings come from his lack of pass rushing moves. Okwara has no real ways to disengage from the offensive tackle across from him, and sometimes it seems that he is content getting blocked. He is not strong enough to power his way through anyone standing across from him, and he is not good enough with his hands to break free from blockers.
Even when the blocker fails to keep him in check, he often cannot take advantage. Okwara’s failure to properly fight off linemen with his hands gives them another chance to block him and keep him out of the play.
While he does not have great power or technique, Okwara does have speed and burst. He is quick out of his stance and can occasionally get the jump on the tackle and fly into the backfield to pressure the quarterback. On this play against the Packers, his quick get off earned him a strip sack.
While a lot of the fault on this play goes to Aaron Rodgers for not having any awareness of his surroundings, Okwara would have never been in the position without his ability to come off of the edge so fast.
Almost every pressure, sack or QB hit that Okwara had last season—barring the ones where the quarterback just wandered into him—came on plays where he came flying around the edge virtually untouched.
Okwara may not be a good pass rusher, but he is serviceable. He can get the job done and the occasional splash play is better than the production of a few other edge defenders around the league.
Pass rushing is not the only part of his job, though. One of the reasons why Detroit released Anthony Zettel in order to make room for Okwara back in September was because of Zettel’s failures to defend the run.
Okwara may not be as good a run defender as Kennard or Eli Harold, but just like his pass rushing, he is serviceable.
The defensive end can often hold the edge but his lack of strength occasionally leads to him getting shoved out of the way and giving up contain on runs that should have been stuffed.
Okwara is great when he is forced to move horizontally, though. He quickly recognizes when a run is going off of his edge and is able to get outside to cover it. When Okwara is forced to cover ground horizontally in order to contain a run, he rarely fails to get the job done.
He also does not bite on play actions or draw plays as often as his predecessor. His ability to diagnose plays quickly and accurately means he is usually in the right place to make a play. While he may not be perfect, at least he is making the offense beat him rather than getting beat on his own.
Does Okwara have a future in Detroit?
Okwara will be a restricted free agent in 2019. The defensive end was undrafted in 2016, meaning Detroit is in an interesting spot. They can offer him a tender worth around $1.9 million, but because of his undrafted status, if another team offers Okwara more, then the Lions will receive no compensation if he signs elsewhere. They can offer a second-round tender worth closer to $2.9 million. That seems like the Lions’ likely choice.
Detroit will still want to acquire a top-tier edge rusher either through the draft or free agency, and it is likely that Okwara is a depth piece for Detroit next year. His sack number will probably regress next season but a cheap one-year deal with minimal risk and potential for upside should be a no brainer for Bob Quinn.
If he performs better next season, then Okwara may earn himself a long-term deal in Detroit. It not, then at worst the Lions can just move on after 2019.