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INDIANAPOLIS — In the NFL, teams are always on the lookout for players who can be molded into high-end pass rushers.
In the minds of many decision-makers around the league, if your defense doesn't have a pass rush, then you, in fact, do not have a defense.
With the NFL Draft still being the best way to acquire pass-rush talent, eyes will be on this year's crop of edge defenders later this month.
Solid, polished pass-rushers quickly fall off the board, so teams that are either picking late in the first round or those without a first-round pick at all like to look for athletic edge defenders who may need a little molding, but have a high ceiling.
The Indianapolis Colts are currently of those teams without a first-round pick in this year's draft, and Notre Dame's Julian Okwara fits the description of a high-potential edge defender who could flourish with a little work.
After arriving in the United States by way of Nigeria as a third grader, Julian and his brother Romeo worked their way up the football ranks as they grew up in North Carolina, both eventually finding their way to South Bend, Ind., with the Fighting Irish. Older by two years, Romeo earned his way into the NFL following the 2016 draft and is now a defensive end with the Detroit Lions.
He is now a resource and sounding board for Julian as the younger brother goes through his own draft process as a fringe first-round prospect.
"He's just kinda told me to work hard, from afar," Julian told reporters at the Scouting Combine about learning from Romeo's pre-draft process. "I think it went unsaid, but looking at how he goes about his business, he's had to work for every single year that he's been in the league. Him going into his fifth year, that's something that's not common to a lot of guys. That's rare, for him and the path that we took from Nigeria, we don't expect to be here. I didn't expect to be at this podium right now."
In 45 games with the Golden Domers, Julian had 21 starts, totaling 79 tackles (24.0 for loss), 15.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, two interceptions, one pass breakup and one blocked kick. His 2019 season was cut short after nine games due to a fractured fibula in November, which also prevented him from working out at the Combine in February.
It was an injury that Okwara said "made me fall in love with the game of football a lot more."
He graded well throughout his collegiate career, according to Pro Football Focus. In 2017, he had a 6.8 grade (two QB hits, 25 QB hurries), in 2018 he had a 33.1 (12 QB hits, 40 QB hurries), and in 2019 he had a 20.4 (five QB hits, 23 QB hurries). Since 2018, he led the NCAA's FBS in pressure rate at 19.1 percent.
Standing at 6'4-¼" and 252 pounds, with 74-⅜" arms and 10-¼" hands, Okwara has great size and length to develop into an athletic, edge-bending pass-rusher.
Although he is more of a slender edge rusher, he does have some power and drive to him as well.
Off of the snap, he shows good flexibility and can bend the edge beneath the offensive tackle's reach, allowing him to dip into the backfield and get to the quarterback.
Okwara has a couple of setup moves, but it doesn't seem like he uses them enough to defeat blockers. He could also use more work in developing counter moves to free himself from blocks; that way he's not just dipping and straight-arming blockers all the time, which can make his approach more predictable.
He does use his long arms to his advantage, keeping a distance between him and the blocker so he can buy himself some time to make a play on the ball. Okwara also understands how to use the blocker, who he has stacked up, to collapse the pocket in on the quarterback. When going for the sack, he is mindful to try and strip the ball.
Okwara shows good speed in pursuit of the ball and gets to his target in a hurry. He can get around the edge quickly, and moves quickly out in the open field
With his athletic abilities, Okwara was an edge defender with plenty of different duties at Notre Dame. Not only has he rushed the passer and played the run off the edge, but he also has plenty of experience dropping into coverage.
Arguably Okwara's biggest area for improvement would be against the run and finishing tackles. He is not very involved against the run on tape, and when the plays are in his ballpark, he often does not get off of the block quick enough to get to the ball.
Since 2018, Okwara was credited with 17 missed tackles, according to PFF. With some coaching on his technique and more consistently squaring-up the ball carrier, he should be able to improve upon those numbers.
Before his season-ending injury happened last year, Okwara felt he was just starting to hit his stride and improve as a run defender.
"I felt like going into my last three games that I played, I was really picking things up," he said. "I was really getting into my groove, but it was just a freak injury right before halftime. It sucks, that was definitely something that I wanted to prove in my senior year."
FIT WITH THE COLTS
In his time as Colts' general manager, Chris Ballard has drafted three of the Colts' current defensive ends, and they all seem to come from the same type of general mold as Okwara.
The three aforementioned defensive end draftees — Kemoko Turay, Ben Banogu and Gerri Green — range between 6'3-1/2" and 6'4-5/8", 250 to 253 pounds, and 33 to 33-3/8" arm length. Their 40-yard dash times were between 4.62 and 4.65 with 10-yard splits between 1.62 and 1.65.
Okwara's recovery from the leg injury prevented him from working out at the Combine, but he was expected to test quite well, and most likely within those same boundaries that Turay, Banogu and Green did. We'll see how the ongoing COVID-19 health emergency, which has halted all college pro days and pre-draft workouts, might affect the stock of a guy like Okwara, who has been considered by many experts to be a late-first, early-second round draft prospect.
As a player, Okwara is actually very reminiscent of Banogu coming out in the 2019 draft. Both players were highly athletic, and because of that were moved around to do whatever their defensive coordinators needed them to do. Coming to the NFL, they were both a bit raw as edge defenders, both in rushing the passer and playing the run.
Like we've seen with Turay and perhaps this coming season with Banogu, NFL coaching, as well as the tutelage of former Colts pass rusher Robert Mathis, could help get these guys developed quite a bit.
Something else that attracts the Colts to certain prospects is if they are still improving and ascending as players, which Okwara is. He was also elected as a team captain by his teammates and coaches for Notre Dame in 2019, which is another cherry on top.
While the Colts would be looking for reinforcements at defensive end even if the cupboard was full, they are starting to have a little bit of a need at the position when you look long-term.
Turay and Banogu are two guys that you love to have, but are still young and are learning how to establish themselves as consistent, dominant pass-rushers. The Colts' top defensive end, Justin Houston, is 31 years old, and he and fellow end Al-Quadin Muhammad are both set to become free agents next offseason. Starting left end Jabaal Sheard is also currently a free agent, and whether he will return to the team is not yet known.
The Colts finished tied for 15th in sacks last season with 41. They haven't finished in the top 10 in the league in sacks since 2014 when they were tied for ninth, again with 41 sacks. So, while the sack total of 41 is actually not bad, they'd like to rank higher in that category.
It seems to be proven year after year in the Super Bowl that pass rush is king when it comes to defense. Typically, either or both of the championship participants brings solid pressure, and the champion typically always gets after the passer.
The Colts have been making some moves this offseason that show they believe they are very close to being at that level, so adding more pass rush with guys like Okwara could certainly help them get there.
OTHER 2020 NFL DRAFT PROSPECT PROFILES
- K.J. Hill | Wide Receiver | Ohio State
- Jerry Jeudy | Wide Receiver | Alabama
- Derrick Brown | Defensive Tackle | Auburn
- K'Lavon Chaisson | Edge Defender | LSU
- CeeDee Lamb | Wide Receiver | Oklahoma
- Tristan Wirfs | Offensive Tackle | Iowa
- Neville Gallimore | Defensive Tackle | Oklahoma
- Jeff Gladney | Cornerback | TCU
- Brandon Aiyuk | Wide Receiver | Arizona State
- Jonah Jackson | Interior Offensive Lineman | Ohio State
- Trevon Diggs | Cornerback | Alabama
- Hunter Bryant | Tight End | Washington