The Detroit Lions have 32 total players from their 2023 roster who are set to become free agents in 2024 (20 unrestricted, 6 restricted, 6 exclusive-rights), and we are reviewing their what their expectations were coming into the 2023 season, how they performed, and ultimately their chances of returning to Detroit in 2024.
Here’s a look at our previously-written free agent profiles: WR Josh Reynolds.
Next up we have veteran edge rusher, Romeo Okwara.
Expectations heading into 2023
After suffering a torn achilles in October of 2021, Okwara began 2022 on the PUP list before appearing in five games for the Lions to close out the season.
On top of the injury in 2021, Okwara revealed he suffered a setback before returning to the field in 2022 that required a corrective procedure on his injured achilles—after the first surgery didn’t take.
All of this factored into why Okwara took almost a $9 million paycut to stay with the team in 2023. Instead of the $14.5 million dollars he was owed from the contract he signed in 2021, the veteran defensive lineman carried just north of a $5.6 cap number in 2023.
Naturally, this reduction in salary came with a change of expectations, too. Achilles injuries are tough to recover from, particularly for larger athletes. Okwara was still expected to be a contributor, but it was clear the team no longer saw him as an every down player.
Actual role in 2023
Note: PFF grades combine regular season and playoffs and reflect a minimum 20% snaps at that position
Regular season — 16 games: 249 defensive snaps (22.7%), 2 sacks, 9 tackles, 2 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble, 5 quarterback hits
Postseason — 3 games: 81 defensive snaps, 2 tackles
PFF Defensive grade: 80.5 (24th of 122 qualified edge defenders)
PFF Run defense grade: 70.9 (30th of 122)
PFF Tackling grade: 77.2 (7th of 122)
PFF Pass rush grade: 71.9 (43rd of 122)
As expected, Okwara was part of the rotation along the defensive line, with his workload fluctuating on a weekly basis. In a Week 5 win over the Carolina Panthers, Okwara logged a season-high 40 snaps, but would only see nine the next week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With his usage seemingly very much tied to the defensive gameplan for a given week, there were seven weeks in which Okwara’s defensive snaps were in the single digits. Statistical production also took a dip in 2023, with the eight-year pro only being credited with three quarterback hits and 11 hurries on the year, per PFF.
With that said, the box score rarely tells many truths, and Okwara’s impact as a rotational player can be tied to the Lions’ dominant run defense. Taking the majority of his snaps at defensive end, he was consistently good at setting the edge against the run and was rarely out of position in run-fits.
The injuries may have robbed Okwara of some of his get-off against the pass, but he is still very strong at the point of attack, and adept at defeating run-blockers.
Outlook for 2024
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
The case for keeping Okwara:
This is an especially tough one for me, and I imagine it will be for Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell as well. While his contributions were relatively low along the way, he started to catch on toward the end of the season.
“Romeo’s last few weeks here, he’s picking up steam on the edge, on the perimeter here for us on the run and pass game,” Campbell noted as the team headed into the postseason, where Okwara posted some of his highest snap counts.
Okwara is a pro’s pro. You don’t last eight years in this league after going undrafted without being wired a certain kind of way. And that kind of presence is especially valuable to a young and developing defensive line room.
On top of what he brings as a mentor for his position group, Okwara will only be 29 years when the 2024 season gets underway, and likely has plenty of good football left in him. I believe he can still be a productive player in a rotation, and his ability to slide inside to the three technique adds to his value.
The case for letting Okwara walk
Similar to the discussion surrounding wide receiver Josh Reynolds, Okwara is a dependable veteran in a young room.
Even if his cap hit were to stay relatively the same in 2024, you could make the case that money might be better spent elsewhere. The Lions already have several players who are really stout against the run in defensive linemen Alim McNeill, Josh Paschal, and John Cominsky.
However, outside of star edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson, the Lions don’t have another player who can consistently win one-on-ones and create quick pressures. This lack of complement led to a lot of teams honing in on slowing down Hutchinson, who still managed to lead the entire NFL in pressures with 62, according to Pro Football Reference.
Adding more pass-rushing juice to this defensive line has to be near the top of Brad Holmes’ to-do list this offseason, and while re-signing Okwara shouldn’t break the bank, it also doesn’t do much in terms of getting after opposing quarterbacks.
Is there interest from both sides?
I’d have to imagine there is at least some interest from both sides. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn would surely like to have a player like Okwara back in 2024, but from the Lions’ standpoint—it would have to be at the right price.
And if you’re Okwara and going into your ninth year in the NFL, you may be looking to cash in if a team is willing to throw some guaranteed money your way.
Additionally, because of the contract restructure, Okwara is already due $3.5 million because of a voided year in 2024. So if the Lions were to re-sign him, he would carry the aforementioned voided cap hit, plus whatever he is being paid from the new deal.
A return would make some sense for both the Lions and Okwara, but there are several variables at play that make this a bit of a toss-up.
How do you think the Lions should approach Romeo Okwara this offseason?
Should the Lions re-sign Romeo Okwara?
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