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Mailbag: What is Julian Okwara’s role in the new Lions defense?

What is Julian Okwara’s role? Will player roles be solidified in OTAs? Most surprising Pro Bowler? How many WRs make the 53-man roster? and more in this week’s mailbag.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week we asked our readers and Twitter followers to submit their questions about the Detroit Lions. Even though we used some of the questions during our PODcast, there were still plenty of great options for our written Mailbag.

We couldn’t get to all of the great questions, but here are a few we thought might pique people's interest.

I feel like Julian Okwara improved a ton last season, especially in the pass rush. He looked like a better pure pass rusher than Charles Harris, but Harris is clearly better against the run. My question is, where do you guys see J. Okwara fit in this scheme? It feels like he has too much talent to just be the 4th string EDGE rusher. Will he be playing some off-ball linebacker maybe? Or maybe just a 3rd down specialist to give Harris/R. Okwara a break? I’m curious to hear what you guys think. — IronFalcon

Jeremy: Before OTAs, we had previously suggested on the PODcast that Okwara may be headed for a more hybrid role as an off-ball linebacker capable of coming off the edge in subpackages. Well, score one for us, because it seems like that’s exactly what’s happening. Here’s Dan Campbell from Thursday talking about Okwara’s role:

We consider him a linebacker. He is a hybrid. We consider him in base as a linebacker, more of a SAM linebacker or on the edge. In sub or in nickel, he becomes more of that defensive end. Third down he could become kind of that spin or stand-up X player. But, just as far as if you’re rolling out base, he’s one of the guys competing to be in our edge, SAM linebacker.

While I’m not quite as high on Julian’s progress thus far, I do think this is the kind of role he could thrive in. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him “start” at this position, alongside Alex Anzalone and Derrick Barnes. I put “start” in quotes, though, because I believe Detroit will be in nickel the majority of the time, and he’ll be the defender that comes off the field for a defensive back.

Erik: I like what I’ve seen from Julian as a pass rusher the past few seasons, but I agree he is going to be a situational player unless he takes some steps in his development as an off-the-ball linebacker—something he has been working on for a while—or as a run defender on the edge.

The Lions' defense is adding a couple hybrid roles on defense, which should help them be truly multiple, and while he may be the best (“starter”) hybrid SAM/EDGE, I agree with Jeremy that it won’t be an every-down role.

And honestly, that’s totally fine. You can’t have a roster of 53 starters, so when you can take an elite athlete and put them in a role that elevates their best skills, it’s a positive outcome.

Do you expect that we will know with confidence the defensive defined positional roles for the players after OTAs? Or, will there still be uncertainty through the preseason? — Hungry Lion

Erik: I’m glad we led with the question about Julian because it leads perfectly into this question about defined roles. We have a pretty good idea of where most players will lineup, and some of the new roles are being explained in surprising detail by the coaching staff, but OTAs are still used as a tool for testing players out at different spots in order to find what fits them best. And because of that multiple position exposure, I do not think we will fully understand where each player will fit into the roster at the conclusion of OTAs.

Just last season we saw Godwin Igwebuike working with the safeties in OTAs, but a special teams drill caught the eye of the offensive coaches and they converted him to running back in training camp. The same thing happened with Jason Cabinda the year prior, switching from linebacker to fullback, as well as with Jamal Agnew switching from corner to receiver.

But it’s not always switching sides of the ball. Last season Bobby Price switched from safety to corner during training camp. Will Harris did the same thing mid-season and looks like he may stick at corner this year as well. We have also seen Ifeatu Melifonwu taking reps at safety and corner in the first OTA available to the media, and his role looks far from settled as well.

Jeremy: It’s always a bit of a challenge to make sure we don’t overreact to the brief window we get into the team in May. Yes, Melifonwu got a ton of looks at safety this week, but that doesn’t mean he’s now a safety. Yes, Will Harris was a starting cornerback on Thursday, but it’s important to note that Jeff Okudah, Jerry Jacobs, and Chase Lucas were all sidelined for that practice.

In short, we got some answers about the roles of the defensive front, but there are far more questions left to find out, and the situation will be fluid all through summer.

Who would be the most surprising Pro Bowler for the upcoming season?

a) Jared Goff
b) Josh Reynolds
c) Jarrad Davis
d) Julian Okwara

— critical perspective

Jeremy: I’m going to rank these because I’m the boss and I do what I wants. From least surprising to most surprising:

  • Goff: Simply put, he will have the biggest opportunity to prove it on the field. Throw in a good supporting cast and most of the good quarterbacks hanging in the AFC, and he’s certainly got a non-zero chance.
  • Reynolds: I view this as highly unlikely, but if Jameson Williams starts the season on PUP and something happens to DJ Chark, I suppose Reynolds could see a ton of opportunities come his way. Seems like Amon-Ra St. Brown would still get the bulk of production, though.
  • Julian Okwara: Again, this only happens if the Lions suffer a bunch of injuries and Okwara is forced into a larger role. But as an aforementioned SAM linebacker, there’s a small chance he can rack up double-digit sacks and turn some heads.
  • Jarrad Davis: Davis is far more likely to miss the roster entirely than to make the Pro Bowl. That being said, this coaching staff is pretty high on him, and he started OTAs with the second-team defense. I don’t see a world where JD makes the roster, wins a starting job, and then on top of all that, becomes a tackling machine and defensive weapon. I know we’re hoping for a Charles Harris-like revival—and this defense may fit him a little better—but I just can’t ignore some of his past struggles.

Erik: Yeah, I’m with you on the order. Goff is a clear starter so he has the best chance, Reynolds is going to get opportunities, we still don’t know exactly what Julian’s role entails, and right now, Davis might not make the roster.

Is Craig Reynolds or Godwin Igwebuike more likely to make the final roster?
What’s the future at RG after this season?
Who plays the X receiver position if Chark gets hurt? — Victor Henry

Jeremy: Alright, let’s go rapid fired down the stretch here, and treat Victor Henry to a trifecta here:

  1. I give the edge to the player who provides more on special teams: Godwin Igwebuike
  2. The future right guard is not on this roster. I expect the Lions to draft him in the first two days of next year’s draft.
  3. Assuming Jameson Williams is still sidelined, Josh Reynolds.

Erik:

  1. I agree with you on Godwin being ahead of Reynolds because of his special teams, he just needs to clean up his ball security.
  2. It would not surprise me in the least to see Halapoulivaati Vaitai rework his contract and reduce his $11.2 million cap hit down to a more reasonable number and continue to be the Lions starting right guard.
  3. Assuming Jameson Williams is sidelined, Quintez Cephus.

Erik: Last season the Lions kept six receivers—Tyrell Williams, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Kalif Raymond, Quintez Cephus, Trinity Benson, and Tom Kennedy—and it makes sense that they would target that number again in 2022.

For me, the early top-six are really clear:

  • St. Brown
  • Jameson Williams
  • DJ Chark
  • Josh Reynolds
  • Raymond
  • Cephus

And if that happens, that would mean Benson and Kennedy would not make the roster and could be candidates for the practice squad. Do you agree Jeremy?

Jeremy: I agree fully. I’m a bit curious about which of the six could be in the most danger. I want to say Raymond because if the Lions can find someone who can bring more as a returner (I’m looking at you, Kalil Pimpleton), it seems like there’s room for improvement there. However, the Lions love Raymond’s attitude, he was a capable fill-in last year, and they gave him a two-year deal this offseason. If they cut him, he’ll actually cost more against the cap ($2.85M) than he currently costs ($1.975M). So... it’s probably Cephus, right?

Erik: Cephus is the only roster carryover among those six so that inherently makes him vulnerable. He also lacks the speed the rest of the group possesses, which seems to be a prerequisite for Brad Holmes. Add in the fact Raymond was also repping ahead of Cephus last season and it’s another sign this coaching staff may favor him more.

Still, despite all those factors working against him, I believe there is value in variety among receivers, and I think your gut may be right in thinking Raymond is just as vulnerable—especially if he can’t hold on to the punt returner job.