Following a breakout 2020 season, Lions edge defender Romeo Okwara is one of the best potential pass-rushing solutions on the market for the Jets.
Elite pass-rush production in 2020
A mostly pedestrian defensive end for the New York Giants (2016-17) and Detroit Lions (2018-present) over the first four years of his career after being signed as an undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame in 2016, Okwara came out of nowhere with a massive breakout year in 2020, becoming one of the best pass rushers in football seemingly overnight.
Okwara tied for fifth among edge rushers with 61 pressures, doing so at a tremendous level of efficiency as his 14.4% pressure rate ranked seventh-best out of 124 qualifiers at the position. Pro Football Focus saw his production as valid, scoring him with an 85.4 pass-rush grade that ranked ninth-best among qualified edge rushers.
In 14 of his 16 games this past season, Okwara registered a pressure rate above the 2020 positional average for edge rushers, which was 9.7%. He was rarely completely silenced, logging at least two pressures in all but one of his games.
The Lions utilized Okwara frequently on both sides of their defense, as he rushed from the left side on 58.9% of his pass-rush snaps and from the right side on 41.1%. He was much more effective from the left side, where his 17.8% pressure rate ranked second-best among all qualified edge defenders behind only Joey Bosa. From the right side, Okwara had a solid pressure rate of 11.6%.
Okwara lined up with his hand in the dirt on 81.0% of his snaps in 2020, making him an ideal fit for a Robert Saleh/Jeff Ulbrich defense that calls for hand-in-the-dirt defensive ends to man the edges.
Throughout his career, Okwara’s durability has been relatively solid. He has played 68 out of 81 possible regular season and playoff games in his career (84.0%). Outside of a 2017 season in which he only played six games due to a knee sprain, he has played 62 out of 65 games (95.4%) across his other four seasons. Okwara played all 16 games in 2020.
Okwara will not turn 26 years old until June, making him the second-youngest impending unrestricted free agent edge rusher (among those to play 200+ snaps in 2020) behind Carl Lawson.
Clean in the penalty department
With only six career penalties over 2,521 defensive snaps, Okwara has averaged just 2.4 penalties per 1,000 snaps, barely more than half of the 2020 positional average at EDGE (4.5).
Okwara put up some brutal numbers against the run this past season. His PFF run defense grade of 45.0 ranked 10th-worst among 124 qualifiers at the position (7th percentile). He collected just 13 run stops (tackles against the run that constitute a poor result for the offense) over 289 snaps against the run, a rate of 4.5%, which placed at the 25th percentile.
It’s worth noting that Okwara’s numbers against the run were actually pretty good prior to 2020. From 2016-19, his composite run defense grade at PFF was 69.9, a number that would have placed him at the 78th percentile among qualified edge rushers in 2020.
Finishing plays is an issue for Okwara, who ranked fourth at his position with 12 missed tackles. It was a problem for him in both phases as he missed seven tackles against the run and five against the pass.
Similar to his run defense, it has to be taken into account that Okwara’s tackling was not a problem for him before 2020. Okwara had a 21.4% missed tackle rate in 2020 (44 tackles, 12 misses). From 2016-19, he had an 8.7% miss rate (95 tackles, 9 misses).
His 2020 season was an enormous outlier
The conundrum for teams pursuing Okwara is that his 2020 season looks completely different than what he put on his resume over his first four seasons.
Over his first four seasons, Okwara was not even remotely close to as good of a pass rusher as he was in 2020. His pressure rate from 2016-19 was 8.2%, a good deal below the 2020 positional average of 9.7%. His best single-season PFF pass-rush grade over that span was a 58.3 in 2019, which ranked at the position’s 21st percentile that year. In 2018, his 50.3 pass-rush grade ranked at the 5th percentile.
On the other hand, Okwara wasn’t as bad of a run defender and tackler as he was in 2020, so he is due for some improvement in those areas. However, pass rushing is what gets front-seven players paid, and with Okwara’s 2020 pass-rush production standing out as such a big outlier compared to the rest of his career, it will be hard for teams to trust that he can maintain the same level of output.
Okwara’s best attributes as a pass rusher are his length and his hand usage. His wins tend to be a result of good technique rather than raw speed, power or athleticism.
Standing at six-foot-five and 265 pounds, Okwara boasts 34⅛-inch arms, a number that puts him at the 72nd percentile among edge rushers measured at the NFL Draft Combine. He combines his long arms with savvy hands to make a lot of noise off the edge.
From a wide 5-tech alignment on the right side, Okwara attacks upfield before leaning into the left tackle and extending his inside hand as if he is feigning a long-arm attempt. This gets the tackle to shoot his hands, opening up room for Okwara to rip underneath the armpit, bend the edge, and use his length to strip the football loose. A great example of his bread-and-butter.