Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell was asked Thursday if any players stood out to him during the first two padded practices of Lions training camp on Tuesday and Wednesday. Campbell thought about it for a second, and the first name he mentioned was second-year outside linebacker Julian Okwara.
"I can tell you this, certainly (the coaching staff) wanted to see Julian Okwara," Campbell said. "Let's see what he looks like in pads and how he responds. In the early part of practice, I thought he was physical and it showed up."
Okwara ended up leaving Wednesday's practice with a rib contusion, but he was back at practice Friday, and had a few moments where he flashed. He had a nice rush in a team period that would have been a sack. Later in practice he showed off his speed and quickness by getting the best of rookie right tackle Penei Sewell in a one-on-one pass-rush period.
The Lions have a pretty good idea of what they have on the edge in Romeo Okwara – Julian's older brother – and Trey Flowers. Both guys are veterans with a track record of production and consistency. What the team is looking for is a third or fourth rusher to emerge and give them some juice off the edge.
Could Okwara be that kind player for Aaron Glenn's defense in his second season?
A third-round pick out of Notre Dame in last year's NFL Draft, Okwara played in just six games as a rookie due to injury, and he didn't record a sack in just 69 snaps played.
He's come into training camp this year looking to have much more of an impact. His size (6-4, 245) and athleticism have flashed at times this first week and a half of camp. But with any young player, especially one who didn't get a whole lot of experience as a rookie, Campbell and the coaching staff are looking for consistency.
"Let's see him do it Friday if he's back and let's see him do it Saturday at Ford Field and then let's see him come back next week after the day off and do it again in pads," Campbell said. "Those little things are what I'm looking for with some of these guys."
Okwara is a rush outside linebacker in Glenn's base 3-4 scheme. Glenn has been using him as a versatile rusher early on. He's been good in the twist and stunt game, and can come at an offense in a lot of different ways, whether that's the A-gap, B-gap or edge.
View photos from Day 5 of Detroit Lions Training Camp presented by Rocket Mortgage on Thursday August 5, 2021.
"I think I can play a lot of different roles," Okwara said after Friday's practice. "I can play whatever. You need me to play DB, I'll play DB too, it doesn't matter."
The Lions recorded just 24 sacks last season, which ranked 27th in the league. That number has to be better if they expect to play better defense overall in 2021.
"Definitely we need to improve on that number," Okwara said. "We need to do a lot of things better this year and just become a better defense and defensive line and just play together, honestly. Knowing your help and becoming a more dominant defensive line. I think we're excited for the challenge."
Okwara is definitely a player to keep an eye on heading into the preseason schedule the next few weeks. If he can offer the Lions some consistency and become another weapon for Glenn to throw at the quarterback coming off the edge, the defense will be much better for it.