Mobile, Ala. — There’s a high probability the Detroit Lions add an edge rusher or two this offseason, but the team’s outside linebacker coach, Kelvin Sheppard, has lofty expectations for one of the players he knows will be back in 2022: Julian Okwara.
Drafted in the third round two years ago, Okwara battled injuries and barely saw the field as a rookie, logging fewer than 70 defensive snaps. And despite seeing a bigger workload than that during Detroit’s three-game preseason slate, he was inactive for the season opener, and didn’t see more than a dozen snaps until his older brother, Romeo, went down with an Achilles injury in Week 4.
With Trey Flowers also ailing, the Lions leaned heavily on the younger Okwara, working him an average of 35 snaps the remainder of the season. And it was during that nine-game stretch (he missed three games with an ankle injury) he racked up the first five sacks of his career, crossing the finish line with three in the final three games he played.
“I don’t care where you were drafted, I don’t care where you come from, you have to earn things,” Sheppard said. “His deal was, he took a step as being a professional. That’s why I say it’s bigger than the game sometimes with these guys. It’s the mental capacity and all this stuff.
“J.O., the strides he took this year, if he can continue to build on that, it starts with him in the offseason,” Sheppard continued. “Where’s he training? What are you doing? Are you doing the right things with your body and all the things I’ve asked you to do? Are you working on that and not doing these YouTube drills you see? But that player, I’m telling you, his career can go wherever he wants it to go.”
As far as Sheppard is concerned, Okwara’s potential is through the roof. And 2022 should be a key year in his development. It’s often said a player makes his biggest jump between their first and second season, but considering how much time he missed both as a rookie and during his senior year at Notre Dame after breaking his leg, Okwara’s third year could act like his second.
Lingering belief in Benson
One of the bigger disappointments from general manager Brad Holmes’ first year on the job was the production of wide receiver Trinity Benson. The Lions gave up a fifth- and seventh-round pick for the 24-year-old, plus a future sixth-round selection, days before the start of the season.
Benson had thrived in the preseason as a member of the Denver Broncos, but struggled to carry that production over to Detroit. Despite having plenty of early-season opportunities, he eventually fell out of the rotation, finishing with 10 catches for 103 yards in eight games.
Holmes recently defended the acquisition in a recent interview with 97.1 FM, stating the team never expected much out of Benson in 2021.
“Knowing that he was young, the intent on Trinity was not 2021,” Holmes said. “It was like, ‘If he could contribute, great. If he needs a little more time to learn a new system kinda coming in late, then that’s what he’ll do.’”
Benson also has the continued support of position coach Antwaan Randle El, who sees plenty of potential in the young talent.
“He is still piquing my interest,” Randle El said this week. “…You see the speed, you see the route-running, you see the catching ability, especially balls on the sideline, the deep outs and stuff like that, and he threatens you. If you’re playing defense against him, he threatens you, in terms of the DB getting out of your backpedal and stuff like that. We see those things.”
The question remains whether fans will ever see those traits on Sunday.
The Lions figure to aggressively pursue receiving help this offseason, whether that’s retaining pending free agent Josh Reynolds, or adding other talent in free agency, the draft or both. Along with the expected return of Quintez Cephus — who missed most of last season with a broken collarbone — the path to a roster spot and playing time is shaping up to be a crowded one for Benson in 2022.
Searching for safeties
The Lions also figure to be in the market for a safety or two this offseason with Tracy Walker, Dean Marlowe and C.J. Moore all set to be free agents.
Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn has discussed the importance of the position within the scheme on multiple occasions and those sentiments were echoed by defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant, who has been filling Glenn’s shoes as the coordinator of the American Team at the Senior Bowl this week.
“Because of the way we play defensively, we really ask our safeties to do a lot of things not only in the run fits and pass coverage, blitzing, playing in the middle of the field, our half-field safety,” Pleasant said. “So you need some versatility, you got to have some really really good leadership qualities, and you got to have some ball production.”
Walker, who figures to be a target for the Lions to retain, checks those first two boxes, but he’s struggled generating turnovers during his career. In four seasons, he has just three interceptions and one forced fumble. But after rebounding from a disastrous 2020 campaign his first year working with Glenn and Pleasant, the latter firmly believes the best is to come for the young veteran safety.
“Both him and I believe for as good as this year was, there is vast room for improvement,” Pleasant said. “And collectively, if we get a chance to work again in the future, you guys can see the same progression that maybe we’ve seen over the last year.”