With the 67th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Detroit Lions selected pass rusher Julian Okwara. This selection marks the first time in Bob Quinn’s tenure as GM that the Lions have chosen an edge rusher in the first two rounds of the draft. Julian joins his brother Romeo on a defensive line that sorely needed upgrades in pass rushing.
Okwara came into 2019 regarded as a first-round talent. A broken leg cost Okwara most of his final season at Notre Dame. Due to the injury, Okwara fell to the Lions at pick 67. He was the perfect blend of best player available, scheme fit, and position of need for Detroit. Immediately, Okwara should step in and contribute as a pass rusher. He possesses great length and uncanny speed-to-power ability. He also occasionally played as an off-ball linebacker and dropped into coverage. But how will adding him into the mix in Detroit affect the rest of the roster?
Changes in the Linebacker Room
The Detroit Lions have been remodeling the second level of their defense since the 2019 NFL Draft. The changing of the guard seems to be rooted in acquiring players with positional fluidity at linebacker. The Lions’ second-round selection from 2019, Jahlani Tavai, had shown in college his ability to play on the edge or in the middle. Jamie Collins, a former Patriot, has the athleticism and reputation for being able to play any linebacker position. Even Christian Jones had shown enough versatility to receive a contract extension mid-season last year. The positional fluidity will mean the linebackers will rotate throughout any of the Mike, Jack, Will, or Sam positions as necessary.
Devon Kennard was a full-time starter at the Jack in Matt Patricia’s defense. He was a team captain and Walter Payton Man of the Year award nominee. However, just after signing Collins this offseason, the Detroit Lions decided to release Kennard. This move stemmed from his lack of pass-rushing ability, but it opened up a roster hole. The surge of talent at linebacker meant that several players could potentially rotate into that spot, replacing Kennard’s production. However, there weren’t enough bodies to be able to cover the number of missing snaps at Jack without sacrificing at Mike or Will.
Adding someone like Okwara was imperative for the Lions in the 2020 draft. He immediately fills a hole that the Lions created in free agency. His presence means that Tavai and Collins can stay where they’re utilized best. Okwara can rotate in as a pass-rusher when needed and provide better production than Kennard offered.
City of Brotherly Love II: Detroit
The Lions have been one step ahead in terms of roster building this offseason during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Coaching the senior bowl allowed them to get ahead in scouting. They’ve dipped into the former-Patriot well, signing Jamie Collins and Danny Shelton, then traded for another safety in Duron Harmon. The Lions, mandated by ownership to start winning, added players who will be able to contribute immediately with a potentially shortened offseason. That same thought process was evident in the draft by selecting a current player’s younger brother.
Julian has the unique advantage of being able to learn the playbook from his older brother, Romeo. Julian will have a leg up in comparison to other rookies who don’t have that luxury. Learning the playbook early will be vital to earning playing time for Julian. It allows him a chance to play a more significant role sooner than most of the Lions’ recent third-round selections. He’ll still need to fill out his frame with more NFL-level strength. Doing so will allow him to contribute more on early downs. But, his athleticism should allow him to expand his role as a Sam or Will on early downs if he’s able to utilize this learning opportunity.
Following the 2011 draft with the ensuing lockout in the NFL, the league had a dilemma. Teams were allowed to hand playbooks out to rookies, but without any coaching, it seemed pointless to disperse those resources. The current landscape of the NFL offseason is very similar. Teams can meet with players on-line, but the lack of in-person instruction will hold back rookies from being early contributors for their organizations. Romeo being able to mentor his younger brother personally could end up being the difference between Julian being more than just a rotational piece on defense.
Julian Okwara won’t push another Jack linebacker off the roster, as the only other Jack is 2019 fourth-rounder Austin Bryant. He will, however, absorb a good chunk of the missing snaps from Devon Kennard. Bryant will likely take most of the early down snaps at the position. Collins and Tavai can play there if the Lions want to sub in Jarrad Davis or Reggie Ragland in the middle. But Okwara should be getting almost starting-level snaps by the end of the season at the position.
The addition of Okwara was sorely needed for this Lions’ defense. His athleticism and potential in rushing the passer should aid in adding a big play every now and again. For a team that seemed to be just a play away in most of their games last year, he might be able to push Matt Patricia’s Lions over the top as a truly competitive team.
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