Healthy Romeo Okwara, home run with No. 2 pick could give Detroit Lions menacing pass rush

Detroit Free Press

Julian Okwara racked up two sacks in the season-ending win over the Green Bay Packers, bringing his season total to a career-high five and giving his older brother, Romeo, even more confidence the Detroit Lions have the makings of a formidable pass rush in 2022.

The Lions finished 27th in the NFL in sack rate this season, the fifth time in six years they’ve finished in the bottom third of the league, but the elder Okwara said last week he sees good things in the Lions’ defensive future.

“I think we can be really, really special,” Romeo Okwara said. “We just have to keep grinding and as guys get healthy, we continue to put the defense together, I think we have a chance to be really, really special here.”

Okwara is one of the keys to what the Lions believe will be an improved pass rush next season.

The Lions’ leader with 10 sacks in 2020, he had one in four games this season before rupturing his Achilles tendon in an October loss to the Chicago Bears.

Okwara is expected to miss most if not all of the Lions’ formal offseason program as he rehabs his injury, but could be ready by the start of training camp.

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He said he will start running on an under-water treadmill soon — “Or walking really quickly,” he said — and will approach his rehab “the same way I attack my offseason training.”

“It was definitely tough mentally,” Okwara said. “This is my first major injury, and just going through surgery for the first time is definitely tough, but at the same time I think it just taught me a lot of patience and gave me appreciation for the game at a higher level, but just still grateful nonetheless.”

Along with Okwara, the Lions return two young pass rushers in Julian Okwara and Austin Bryant coming off solid seasons, and have made it known they would like to re-sign pending free agent Charles Harris this offseason.

Harris had a team-leading and career-high 7.5 sacks this season.

“We’d all love to have him (back),” Romeo Okwara said. “He has decisions he has to make, but I would love to next to be next to Charles for as long as possible.”

Even if Okwara returns healthy and Harris re-signs, the Lions could bolster their pass rush with the No. 2 pick in the draft, where Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson and Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux are among the top prospects.

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One of Hutchinson, who had 14 sacks this season, or Thibodeaux, who had seven, would give the Lions the potential difference maker they lack on the edge.

The Lions had one extended sack drought this season, when they went more three games worth of action between sacks — from early in the third quarter of an Oct. 24 loss to the Los Angeles Rams to late in the third quarter of a Nov. 21 loss to the Cleveland Browns — and their top six sack producers (Harris, Julian Okwara, Bryant, Alim McNeill, Derrick Barnes and Jessie Lemonier) combined for as many sacks (22.5) as NFL sack-leader T.J. Watt.

General manager Brad Holmes said in his postseason news conference he considers the offensive and defensive lines the Lions’ strengths. But asked about Hutchinson and Thibodeaux in an interview the same day with WJBK-TV, he indicated bolstering the pass rush could be in the Lions’ future.

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“You can never have enough pass rushers,” Holmes said. “Now, I did think losing a Romeo Okwara earlier in the year, that hurt cause we were really counting on him. But really like what Charles Harris did for us, we really like the growth that Julian Okwara did. We like the growth (of) Austin Bryant, a Jessie Lemonier, those kind of guys, getting opportunities and producing.

“But regardless of where we’re at from a sack number standpoint, I will always say that you can never have enough pass rushers.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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