Last year was a breakout season for veteran defensive end Romeo Okwara. Leading the Detroit Lions with 10.0 sacks, the 25-year old Okwara earned himself a massive three-year, $39 million contract extension this offseason from the Motor City.
Despite the recent regime change in Detroit and the corresponding coaching and roster changes, the team clearly valued Okwara and targeted him as a foundational piece to rebuild around. But now that his immediate future is secure in Motown, can his play continue to trend upward in his sixth season?
Okwara was originally an undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame back in 2016 who signed with the New York Giants as a rookie. After two unremarkable seasons in the Big Apple, where he posted a single sack in 22 games, the young defender was waived by the Giants.
The Lions claimed Okwara off the waiver wire prior to the start of the 2018 NFL regular season. And all he did in return was lead the team with 7.5 sacks in his very first year.
That, in turn, earned him a new two-year contract in Detroit. Unforiutnaly, Okwara would have a down sophomore season for the Lions, recording a mere 1.5 sacks in 14 games, although he only started in one. His defensive snap count also dropped by 20%.
Okwara bounced back in a major way last season posting career highs in defensive snaps (749), total tackles (44), tackles for loss (11), forced fumbles (3), QB hits (18), and sacks (10.0). Here’s what NFL Network Analytics Expert Cynthia Frelund wrote about Okwara on NFL.com recently after she named him the Lions’ most underappreciated player.
"“Okwara stands out on third down, where his 30 pressures and 23.8 percent pressure rate both led the league in 2020, according to NGS … Measuring Okwara’s burst, he improved by about 0.7 seconds in 2020 from any of the four seasons prior. That is a massive increase, likely reflecting both better usage and performance in different alignments … “"
Now that Okwara has earned himself a healthy contract extension in Detroit, the expectations are higher than ever for him to maintain his double-digit sack totals for 2021. But there may be a wrinkle in those plans as the defense, under new coordinator Aaron Glenn, is transitioning to a 3-4 base. That means Okwara is moving to outside linebacker.
For a player coming off a career season, changing defensive schemes and positions could be a momentum killer. Luckily, Romeo Okwara played some outside linebacker in college, which could lessen his learning curve. Still, this transition is something fans will want to watch very carefully this summer.