We conclude our 2021 Detroit Lions free agent profile series with one of the team’s most tricky situations. Romeo Okwara, who came away with our “Defensive Player of the Year” and “Breakout Player of the Year” awards in 2020, could be in for a big payday. But as of Sunday evening, there has been little indication that the Lions will be the team writing the check.
Of course, we haven’t even hit the tampering period of NFL free agency yet, so that situation could change in a hurry. But Okwara is not an easy re-signing for the Lions. There are questions about his projections into the future, and the Lions aren’t exactly in a spot both financially and from a roster standpoint to be shelling out money on a single player with as thin of a resume as Okwara.
So what should the Lions do? What are the Lions going to do? Let’s take a closer look at the situation.
Previous free agent profiles: Mohamed Sanu, Oday Aboushi, Danny Amendola, Matt Prater, Jamal Agnew, Everson Griffen, Duron Harmon, Kenny Golladay, Don Muhlbach, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Darryl Roberts, Marvin Jones Jr., Adrian Peterson, Miles Killebrew, Jarrad Davis, Tony McRae
Expectations heading into 2020
In 2019, Okwara didn’t have much of a positive impact on the team. He netted just 1.5 sacks and a forgettable PFF grade of 60.7.
With Trey Flowers set to come back and lock down the starting down defensive end position, Okwara was set to have another rotational role in 2020. And with the addition of his brother Julian Okwara and the (hopeful) growth of Austin Bryant, there just wasn’t much hype about Romeo Okwara headed into 2020.
To give you a sense of how low most people were on him, he ranked 25th in our preseason roster rankings, four spots below Jahlani Tavai, two spots below his brother Julian and just five spots above Will Harris.
Actual role in 2020
16 games (9 starts): 44 tackles, 10.0 sacks, 18 QB hits, 3 forced fumbles
PFF grade: 56.1 on special teams, 32.2 on defense
Without a doubt, Romeo Okwara enjoyed the best season of his career in 2020. He doubled his career sacks, and he produced more fumbles (3) last season than he had in the previous four seasons combined (2).
Most importantly, these weren’t just opportunistic sacks he was tallying like his 7.5 sack season in 2018. Okwara ranked highly in almost every pressure-rate statistic. Halfway through November, Okwara was seventh in ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric and fourth in PFF’s pressure rate. Look at the company he was keeping for the majority of the year:
The Lions had to rely on Okwara after an injury-filled season for Trey Flowers, and he rewarded them with as good of a pass-rushing season as we’ve seen from an edge defender in Detroit in several years.
Outlook for 2021
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
It should come as little surprise that the Lions passed on using the franchise tag on Okwara, as it would have cost them just over $16 million for one season. However, it is surprising that on the eve of the legal tampering period, we’ve heard no news about the Lions and Okwara entering negotiations for a long-term deal.
To be fair, Okwara is a very hard player to project. On one hand, his 2020 season was legitimately fantastic and he’ll only be 26 years old when the season begins. He also put up great numbers despite being on a defensive line that produced little help for him.
On the other hand, Okwara isn’t the kind of player that has ever drawn double teams, and he truly only has one good season under his belt. Was 2020 a flash-in-the-pan year or a sign of serious growth to come?
It is an unusually deep free agency period at edge, however, and that could work to the Lions’ favor. With names like Yannick Ngakoue Matt Judon, Shaquil Barrett and Leonard Floyd set to hit free agency, Okwara may not like the deals he’s offered and could look at his situation in Detroit, with his brother as his roommate, as too comfortable of a position to pass up.
Will the Lions put a competitive offer out there, though? Cap space is limited, and while Okwara could be a piece of the future, are the Lions willing to take that gamble in the middle of a rebuild on a player with only one year of solid productivity?
Per ESPN’s Dan Graziano and Jeremy Fowler, there is at least some interest in bringing him back.
“The Lions would love to retain edge rusher Romeo Okwara, but they opted not to tag him and believe he wants to see what’s out there on the open market before deciding whether to return to Detroit,” they wrote over the weekend.
It’s one of many tough dilemmas Lions general manager Brad Holmes has found himself in already in his young career.