INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts drafted a superstar linebacker in 2018, and in 2019 they followed it up by selecting another playmaker who caught eyes on his own as a rookie linebacker.
While Bobby Okereke's role as a rookie wasn't yet as broad as the aforementioned Darius Leonard, whenever the young linebacker was on the field, he was making his presence known.
According to Pro Football Focus, no rookie linebacker was more effective in 2019 than Okereke, who made its list of the highest-graded players, rookies and surprises around the NFL:
"Okereke was one of the best athletes at the position coming out of college last year, and it translated swiftly in coverage for the Colts. On 34 targets this season, he allowed 12 first downs and registered 10 stops. Apparently, the Colts know what they're doing when it comes to drafting linebackers."
The rookie out of Stanford finished the regular season as PFF's No. 8-ranked rookie overall in the NFL, with his 77.3 grade ranking almost 11 points higher than the next player. He was also PFF's No. 8-ranked linebacker overall among those that had played at least 450 snaps.
That earned him a spot on PFF's All-Rookie Team along with teammates Rock Ya-Sin and Chase McLaughlin.
While the Colts' base 4-3 defense utilizes three linebackers — Leonard at WILL, Anthony Walker at MIKE and Okereke at SAM — teams in the NFL operate out of sub-packages more often than not throughout the season, which usually sends the SAM linebacker to the sideline. While that was the case in the Colts' first year in their current system in 2018, they found themselves still wanting Okereke on the field.
"Yeah, I think we probably did use him a little bit more. We trust Bobby. Bobby is one of those guys that executes well, has high functional intelligence, plays the game at a high rate and learns at a high rate. He is one of the guys that we put in there and increased his role," Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus told reporters at the end of the season.
"You do different things with different guys. Sometimes you have a bigger-type body that you might set him on the line of scrimmage more. He might function as more of a defensive end or you have Bobby who is more of an off-the-ball linebacker where you put him in space, put him in the bubble and play him that way. It all depends on what they bring to the table," Eberflus continued. "Bobby does a nice job in space. He is a good space-player. He is able to adjust his body, move in space and understand angles. He has done a nice job that way."
Okereke started 8-of-16 games as a rookie, amassing 58 tackles (two for loss), 1.0 sack, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovered, two pass breakups, one quarterback hit, and he intercepted and returned a two-point conversion attempt for points. He was credited with only five missed tackles throughout the season, according to PFF, which ranked fourth fewest among qualifying linebackers.
Touted for his range and abilities in pass defense, Okereke allowed the second-fewest yards per reception among rookie linebackers (7.4), the third-fewest yards after catch (120) and the fourth-best opponent passer rating (102.0). Overall, he ranked 10th among NFL off-ball linebackers in coverage with a grade of 79.2.
Although the Colts already have an incredibly promising nucleus at linebacker with Leonard — the two-time All-Pro — and Walker with their back-to-back 100-tackle campaigns, the need to get Okereke on the field with them will only continue to grow as he develops going into Year 2.
"Bobby Okereke, he's got somethin' real special in his body," Colts general manager Chris Ballard said at his end-of-season press conference. "I think you saw the flashes."