The two new members of the Detroit Lions defensive line have shined in limited action, giving the team some optimism at the edge rusher position.
Last season, the Detroit Lions pass rush was inconsistent at best. Defensive end Anthony Zettel started off the 2017 season strong but had no production after the bye week. Premier pass rusher Ezekiel Ansah had three games where he recorded 3.0 sacks each, but was injured or nonproductive for much of the season.
The rest of the Lions defense did not show much promise when it came to getting to the quarterback. After bringing in Matt Patricia as a head coach this offseason, the defense went through a major change.
Detroit moved on from many of their defensive linemen after the 2017 season and brought in players like linebacker Devon Kennard, plus defensive tackles Sylvester Williams and Ricky Jean-Francois to play in their new scheme.
Many Lions fans were surprised when Motown claimed defensive end Romeo Okwara off of waivers and released Zettel, who was expected to be a starter in the 2018 season. The third-year pro went undrafted out of Notre Dame in 2016 and spent two years on the New York Giants before arriving in Detroit.
The Lions also traded a 2020 conditional seventh-round pick to the San Francisco 49ers for linebacker Eli Harold. Harold may have been a third-round pick out of Virginia in 2015, but it seemed that San Francisco was ready to let him go outright if nobody was interested in trading for him.
Both transactions seemed underwhelming at first. Expectations for these two young players were low, as many thought that they were nothing more than defensive line depth. But with a new defensive scheme and Ansah battling an injury, Harold and Okwara capitalized on their opportunities.
The two new Lions defenders play similar roles, being versatile enough to line up as a linebacker or defensive end in Patricia’s new defensive playbook. Overall, this defensive line has looked much improved compared to last season, largely due to new additions at the pass rusher position.
In the Week 3 primetime matchup, Harold recorded 2.0 sacks and two quarterback hits on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. He has shown some flashes of talent in coverage but has found his place on this team as a pass rusher.
Both of Harold’s sacks that week were from coverage, but it shows that he is able to capitalize on opportunities and get to the quarterback quickly. Add on one more sack and a tackle for loss on the season so far, and it appears that the trade has paid off for Detroit.
Okwara came out strong against the run in the game versus the Dallas Cowboys in Week 4 and recorded a sack as well. The next week, against the Green Bay Packers, he recorded 2.0 more sacks, three quarterback hits, a tackle for loss, and a forced fumble.
The 23-year old Okwara has played well in a limited role and made the most out of his opportunities. Especially when Harold and Ansah were both inactive against Green Bay. Though it would have been nice to have extra depth, swapping out Zettel for Okwara now looks like a win for the Lions.
Eli Harold and Romeo Okwara bring some youth to this Detroit Lions defense, as both are still under the age of 25. Pair that with several years of starting experience in the league and these players seem like steals for the Lions. If they can continue their momentum from the start of this season and keep consistent production, it won’t be hard to see them as key members of this defense for the foreseeable future.