It’s hard to look at Levi Onwuzurike’s rookie season and call it anything other than a disappointment. The Detroit Lions second-round pick in 2021, Onwuzurike did not make much of an impact on the field, tallying just 35 tackles. two tackles for loss, one sack and one quarterback hit in 16 game appearances. He never cracked the starting lineup, and he finished with 43.2 PFF grade, which ranked him 119th out of 131 NFL defensive tackles who played at least 250 snaps.
But Lions defensive line coach Todd Wash revealed some important context to Onwuzurike’s rough rookie season: he was hurting bad.
“I know he played, he didn’t miss games really for the most part, but he was not healthy,” Wash told DetroitLions.com’s Tim Twentyman recently. “He was battling through it.”
It’s unclear what exact injury Onwuzurike was dealing with. Early in training camp, he missed significant time with a lingering back injury from college. He missed Week 1 with a hip injury. But he didn’t show up on the injury report for the entire rest of the season, outside of a couple day stint with an illness.
But based on Wash said about Onwuzurike’s current health, it sure sounds like it was a pretty serious injury he was dealing with.
“I think our strength staff did a really nice job this offseason. He’s not limping. He can actually sit in a chair for meetings. So, health is the biggest thing for him,” Wash said.
A month ago, head coach Dan Campbell praised Onwuzurike for the work he has put in this offseason. The second-year defensive tackle has spent much of the Lions offseason working on getting healthy and stronger.
“Levi, he looks good,” Campbell said. “He looks good. I know it’s early and we’re only in early April, but you can tell he’s been working. That says something.”
That sets up big expectations for Onwuzurike in 2022. The Lions invested in his supporting cast by drafting edge defenders Aidan Hutchinson and Josh Paschal in the first and second round of the draft, respectively. And with many players taking a jump in their second year in the NFL, plus a schematic change that plays to Onwuzurike’s strengths, the table is set for a breakout season.
“The changing of philosophy upfront, I think we’re going to see the power and explosiveness we see in him,” Wash said. “He’s been here every day and he’s looking jacked. I’m kind of excited about that one.”