For all of Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes’ hits through two drafts, there is one that stands out as a pretty significant miss. Defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike, the team’s second-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, has only played in 16 games since being drafted, and most of those games were severely hampered by a back injury.
That injury has plagued Onwuzuruike ever since landing in Detroit, and many believe it may threaten his entire football career. That said, he is still just 25 years old, and when we last saw Onwuzurike, it appeared he was on a serious path to returning to play.
So will we see Onwuzurike in 2023? Is this his final chance to make it before the Lions move on? Let’s take a closer look in our 2023 roster preview series.
Expectations heading into 2022
In his rookie season, Onwuzurike played in 16 games, but his back injury was a constant nuisance. Before the season even began, the Lions sent him to a back specialist, and although Onwuzurike brushed off the concerns at the time, that injury was a big reason his 2021 season was mostly forgettable. Former Lions defensive line coach Todd Wash said there were times during the season that Onwuzurike couldn’t even sit down comfortably in his chair.
Entering 2022, there was optimism Onwuzurike had put the injury behind him. The Lions training staff put together an intensive program for him to get better, and they entered training camp feeling comfortable Onwuzurike was at full health, “jacked,” and ready to take that coveted Year 2 jump.
“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.”
Actual role in 2022
Did not play
Unfortunately, optimism about Onwuzurike’s health did not last long. A week into training camp, Onwuzurike left practice and did not return. At first, the Lions downplayed the injury and hoped to get him back before the season started. Then coach Dan Campbell said he didn’t expect Onwuzurike to play in the season opener. Onwuzurike didn’t start the season on injured reserve, giving some hope he’d play early on, but that optimism didn’t last long.
In October, the worst news broke. The back surgery the Lions and Onwuzuruike had been trying to put off was no longer avoidable, and the defensive tackle’s second season was over before it began.
“It’s a last resort, but we felt like that was where he needed to go with it,” Campbell said. “Saw a number of doctors and so we’ll see where it goes.”
Outlook for 2023
It’s hard to know what to expect out of Onwuzurike at all going forward. At the time of the surgery, the hope was that once he recovers in full, the injury would be behind him fully. However, that rehab process is obviously still ongoing.
During OTAs and minicamp, Onwuzurike was spotted on the field, occasionally going through drills without a helmet and working alongside a trainer. But it was also clear he wasn’t all that close to being a true participant in practice. Campbell said the hope is to get him on the field at some point in training camp.
“Certainly, we’re hoping that we get him in camp at some point, but I can’t give you a timeline of that right now,” Campbell said.
That vague timeline puts the Lions in a bit of a bind. If the Lions decide to forego putting Onwuzurike on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) or take him off the list in the middle of camp, he will only have a short amount of time to justify a spot on the 53-man roster. Remember, this is a guy who has barely even practiced football in over a year and hasn’t played healthy football in over two years. That’s not exactly putting him in a position to succeed. It’s entirely possible they would have to cut him given how talented the roster is these days.
That said, if the Lions decide to keep Onwuzurike on the PUP list for all of training camp and into the season, that would be the third straight year that he has missed most or all of training camp. Onwuzurike would have the time to fully rehab, though, and he wouldn’t count against the 53-man roster until he was fully ready to go.
That is certainly the more cautious route to go for Onwuzurike, but it would mean missing more valuable reps and at least four games of the regular season. And if the Lions go this route, it would take at least a few weeks after being removed from PUP for Onwuzurike to be ready for actual playing time. In other words, this route could cost him at least half the season.
Neither scenario is particularly good for Onwuzurike, but it highlights just how dire his situation has gotten. The best possible scenario for him is that he returns for training camp and hits the ground running. But at this point, that also feels like the least likely outcome.
Onwuzurike has a massively high hill to climb to recapture his dreams of being an impactful NFL player, and it’s fair to say that if it doesn’t happen at any point in 2023, it may never happen here in Detroit.