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2021 Detroit Lions roster preview: Can Romeo Okwara take his game to the next level?

Romeo Okwara had a breakout season in 2020. Will he prove it wasn’t a fluke?

Detroit Lions v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

As Erik Schlitt kicks off his series reviewing the performances and snap counts of the Detroit Lions’ 2020 draft class, we’ll also be looking at some of the other returning players from last year. Though the roster has seen a ton of overturn in the past few months, there are still players from the previous regime that figure to play a big role in both 2021 and beyond.

No one fits that bill better than edge defender Romeo Okwara, whose breakout season in 2020 was rewarded by the new regime with a huge three-year contract in free agency. Okwara clearly outplayed his last contract, but how will his production compare to his new figures now that he’s making over $10 million a year?

Let’s take a closer look at Okwara, his 2020 season, and how he projects in Detroit’s future.

Romeo Okwara

Expectations heading into 2020

It’s fair to say that Romeo Okwara was largely overlooked heading into the 2020 season. Though he had 7.5 sacks in 2018, many believed those to be artificially inflated numbers due to sacks of the “clean-up” variety—substantiated by a just 50.3 pass-rush grade from PFF that year. So when his sack numbers dropped to just 1.5 in 2019, it wasn’t much of a surprise, and many had made up their mind that Okwara was simply a rotational player who could provide some productive depth at times. Nothing more, nothing less.

Actual role in 2020

2020 stats: 16 games (9 starts): 44 tackles, 10.0 sacks, 3 forced fumbles
PFF grade: 68.8 (28th out of 62 qualifying EDGEs)

Okwara blew expectations out of the water in 2020. With Trey Flowers battling injury for the majority of the season, the pressure was on Okwara to provide a consistent pass rush, and he delivered on a consistent basis. Not only did his 10 sacks rank 10th in the NFL, but just about every advanced pressure statistic had him as an elite talent last year:

  • PFF pass-rushing grade: 84.5 (10th)
  • PFF’s pass-rushing productivity: 8.9 (t-fifth)
  • ESPN’s pass rush win rate: 18th

It was a fantastic season for Okwara any way you slice it. Considering he didn’t have much help from anyone else on the defensive front, it makes Okwara’s season special.

That being said, he did take a bit of a step back when it comes to run defense. His PFF run-defense grade dropped to a career-low (45.0), and his tackling was especially poor. PFF credited him with 12 missed tackles. In the previous four seasons of his career, he only had 10 total.

Outlook for 2021

Contract status: Signed through 2023 (2024 is automatically voided)

Okwara figures to be a key part of the team’s future, but before we start crowning him a top-15 edge defender or pass rusher, he must answer a few questions.

The first is whether he can continue to his dominant play now that he’s got a solid season in the bag. Earlier this offseason, Okwara spoke specifically about this point, suggesting that his game needs to evolve now that there’s good tape out there on him.

“This year is probably going to be even more of a challenge,” Okwara said back in March. “Because it’s no secret anymore, I guess the cat’s out of the bag and more people are going to be paying attention to me. I have to be even more developed within the (pass rush) counters and the pass rush moves.”

The second question he must answer is whether he can adjust to his new position. As noted by defensive line coach Todd Wash last month, both Okwara and Trey Flowers will be moving to the outside linebacker position in base defense, meaning he’ll be rushing without his hand in the dirt more often this season.

This isn’t a completely foreign concept for Okwara. Last year alone, he logged 134 of his 742 snaps at the outside linebacker position, and at Notre Dame, he was utilized both at defensive end and outside linebacker.

But most of all, Okwara will simply have to prove that 2020 was not a fluke year. When you look at his pass-rushing grades, last season was either an anomaly or a huge step towards growth:

2016: 42.4
2017: 49.1
2018: 50.3
2019: 58.3
2020: 84.5

The good news for Okwara is that he’ll have a better supporting cast (on paper). Detroit invested heavily in their interior defensive line by trading for Michael Brockers and drafting both Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill in Day 2 of the 2021 NFL Draft. Ideally, that tougher interior presence could draw attention and free up Okwara to continue to be a disruption, but that all remains theoretical at this point.

Poll

How many sacks will Romeo Okwara have in 2021?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    Less than 5
    (16 votes)
  • 19%
    5-7
    (249 votes)
  • 54%
    8-10
    (679 votes)
  • 24%
    11+
    (313 votes)
1257 votes total Vote Now