Injuries are part of every player's NFL journey, but significant injuries early in a player’s career often lead to quick judgments about a player’s durability. Too often we see player’s tabbed with an “injury-prone” label, which can be a difficult impression to shake. Third-year edge rusher Austin Bryant—currently injured—carries that label around, and if second-year edge Julian Okwara can’t stay on the field this season, he may be headed for that dreaded label as well.
This is the third installment in a series of articles at Pride of Detroit where we will examine the snap counts for Detroit Lions rookies during the 2020 season. You can read the previous articles in this series here: Jeff Okudah, D’Andre Swift.
Julian Okwara, EDGE: Round 3, Pick 67
Okwara was generally regarded as a healthy football player at Notre Dame up until his senior year when he broke his left leg halfway through the season. While unable to work out leading up to the draft, he was expected to be fully healed by training camp and ready to contribute.
With Trey Flowers and brother Romeo Okwara in the fold as starters (as well as a motley crew of JACK linebackers), the Lions wanted to use Julian’s above-average athleticism in an early impact situational pass rusher role, allowing him to acclimate slowly to the NFL.
Okwara’s 2020 snap counts
In the chart below, you can see the snap counts from Okwara’s entire rookie season broken down by defensive snaps, percentage of defensive snaps, special teams snaps, and percentage of special teams snaps.
The Lions appeared in no rush to throw the 67th overall pick into the mix early on in his career. After playing just seven defensive snaps in the opener, Okwara was a healthy scratch in Week 2, as the Lions needed to replace six starters in the lineup and keeping a situational pass rusher was deemed a luxury. Okwara’s role didn’t change over the next two weeks, seeing only minimal snaps late in games, but this was often a theme with how the previous coaching staff approached rookie’s involvement.
After the bye week, when most rookies’ roles increase, Okwara injured his right leg (not the leg injured in college) and landed on injured reserve soon after. He wouldn’t practice for the next seven weeks but returned to the team in Week 13 and eventually worked his way back to the active roster in Week 16. Over the final two games, Okwara managed to double his snaps per game—a likely targeted snap count for earlier in the season—but only registered a modest three tackles over 39 snaps.
With Flowers and Romeo Okwara returning to their starting roles, Julian appears to be the most talented reserve edge rusher on the roster and could easily be the primary backup at both pass-rushing linebacker spots. He will be challenged by the aforementioned oft-injured Bryant and former first-round pick Charles Harris for snaps.
While Okwara possesses the talent to be an early impact contributor, and the opportunity will be there for him to see snaps, it’s important to keep things in perspective—he only has 69 defensive snaps in the NFL and likely still needs some polish to his game.
Expect Okwara’s primary role to be as a situational pass rusher as he develops, with his athleticism and upside allowing him to expand his game beyond only that role. For example, of the edge rushers currently on the roster, he is the one talented enough to effectively drop into coverage—something we saw a few times in one-on-one reps at minicamp.
Bottom line, Okwara has starter upside but he isn’t there yet. If he can stay healthy and work on the nuances of his game, he should see his role and production grow throughout the season.