O'HARA: Okwara focused on getting better this offseason

Romeo Okwara likes to travel the world between football seasons, and he was on the move again this year after what proved to be a turnaround season for him with the Detroit Lions.

“I was all over the place,” he said. “I went back home to Nigeria. I haven’t been back there since ’05. I went back to see some family there. I went to Tokyo and Iceland. Both places are a little different.”

He had stops in other years to Greece, Paris, Amsterdam and Thailand. There are more places to go, and more to see.

“I like different places,” he said. “I like all parts of the world – just checking things out that I’ve never seen before.”

In his chosen occupation – playing defensive end for the Lions -- his focus is on the here and now in his preparation for the 2019 season.

What brought Okwara to Detroit last year is of no concern, as uprooting as it may have been at the time. He was on the move, and not by choice.

After two seasons with the Giants, he was waived in the mandatory cutdown after the final preseason game and claimed by the Lions. After being inactive for the opener, Okwara became part of the rotation at defensive end for Game 2 and moved up to start the last 14 games.

It was a fortuitous change in fortunes for Okwara and the Lions. He established himself as a starter at right defensive end, leading the team with a career-high 7.5 sacks, and was rewarded in the offseason with a contract extension.

Looking back – well, he isn’t.

“Every season, I go with the same mindset,” Okwara said. “Getting better in the offseason. Improving throughout the different phases. Putting the work in in the offseason and carrying that into training camp.

“I really focus on the offseason and getting better. I never think about anything else. My feet are exactly where they are.

“All I can do is the best I can, wherever I am.”

View photos from phase two of the 2019 voluntary offseason workout program in Allen Park, Mich.

Although he lined up primarily on the right side, it was apparent early that Okwara’s versatility would be an asset in head coach Matt Patricia’s schemes that put a premium on players performing in multiple positions.

Okwara produced early. In a four-game stretch, from Weeks 4-8 with a bye in the middle, Okwara had five sacks and a forced fumble. Two of those sacks, and the forced fumble, came in a 31-23 win at Ford Field over the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers.

Okwara punished Rodgers again in the Lions’ 31-0 win over the Packers in the season finale at Lambeau Field. One of his 14 quarterback hits for the season knocked Rodgers out of the game.

While the offense struggled all year, partly because of injuries, the defense improved steadily to finish the season ranked 10th overall. The pass rush produced 43 sacks, an improvement over 35 in 2018.

Okwara’s versatility fit the system, as did others in the front seven such as rookie lineman Da’Shawn Hand and linebacker Devon Kennard, like Okwara a former Giant who’d been signed as a free agent in the offseason.

Being on the move is one of Okwara’s passions in the offseason. Its an asset in his profession.

“Any system, I try to be versatile – whatever position I’m put at on the field,” Okwara said. “Obviously, it worked out in my favor in this defense. I need to learn the position and expand the different techniques that Coach Patricia teaches.

“There are a lot of different parts to it, but you can try to simplify it in your head. We try to make it hard for the opponent to kind of get our personnel. I think every coordinator would try to do that.

“I picked it up pretty quickly. That’s why I was able to come in and learn. I’m still learning. Right now I’m honing those specific techniques and growing in the defense.”

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