The NFL Draft is just over a week away, and assuming all goes as planned, it’ll probably be the most-watched NFL Draft of all time given the lack of sports for the last month. Notre Dame has several former players hoping to hear their name called early in the Draft, one of whom is DE Julian Okwara. Of all the draft-eligible Notre Dame players, however, he is one of the most difficult to project.
2019 Injury Clouds Okwara’s Projections
In a typical year, a broken leg like the one Julian Okwara suffered against Duke in November wouldn’t be a significant red flag for an NFL bound prospect, but we are not in a typical year. The coronavirus wiped out all campus pro days and all prospect visits that NFL teams usually have. Because of that, Okwara did not have a chance to be tested by NFL teams leading up to the Draft other than seeing Okwara post 27 reps in the bench press at the NFL Combine. That was the only drill Okwara participated in.
Before Okwara’s injury against Duke, there were some red flags for NFL teams, though. Okwara’s 2019 season was not the major step forward that most expected after seeing him post 8.0 sacks in 2018.
After his successful 2018 campaign, Okwara asked the NFL for a Draft evaluation before deciding to return for his senior season but did consider leaving last year already. That had many prognosticators projecting Okwara as a 1st rounder before the season. He ended his 2019 campaign with just 5.0 sacks, three of which came in one afternoon against Virginia.
What Okwara Can Do Well in the NFL
Rush the passer. When Okwara can line up and use his speed for rushing the passer, we know he can cause a lot of problems for opposing offensive tackles.
A position change could be in the cards for Okwara once he gets to the NFL. While he played exclusively in a 4-3 defense at Notre Dame, his size and frame could make him more productive as an outside linebacker in the right scheme. Remember, Okwara is pretty good in coverage. Just ask Shea Patterson.
Here’s another reminder of Okwara’s combination of pass rush and ball skills. Plays like this are a prime example of why Okwara could thrive as an OLB in the NFL.
Julian Okwara, OLB, what an interception, he can not only drop into coverage, but has a relentless pass rush that would be A+ situational for Steelers to develop. #HereWeGo #SteelersDraft pic.twitter.com/GTSIvuRqXl
— Steel Legends (@Steel_Legends) April 12, 2020
What Okwara Might Struggle With in the NFL
If Okwara is drafted to be a traditional 4-3 defensive end, he could struggle against the run going up against bigger, faster offensive tackles. Okwara was better against the run than he was generally given credit for simply because people look at his frame and think, “there’s no way this guy is good against the run,” but he was better than most think.
The NFL is a whole other ball game, though when it comes to the tackles he will face off the edge. Okwara’s NFL.com grade is a 6.3 which they project to mean that he will be a starter in the NFL within two years, but if a team with a 4-3 defense drafts Okwara in hopes of developing him, he could be in line for more of a situational role in the early part of his career.
A lot of the same things were said about his brother Romeo though, and he has played well as a traditional 4-3 defensive end in the NFL. Romeo Okwara just signed a three-year contract with the Detroit Lions before the 2019 season after racking up 7.5 sacks while started 14 games as DE in 2018.
Worst Case Scenario
NFL teams could be scared away by Okwara coming off an injury given the uncertainty right now around off-season training activities. Teams that run 4-3 defenses could be scared away by Okwara’s size and his lack of production in 2019 before his injury. If they look very closely at the tape, they will see how much attention Okwara was given by opposing offenses, though.
The lowest I’ve seen Okwara go in mock drafts the last few weeks is the 3rd round. We all know how accurate those can be, but that still seems like the worst-case scenario for Okwara. The NFL places a huge premium on pass rushers. Even situational pass rushers get paid and can have long NFL careers.
Best Case Scenario
The best-case scenario for Okwara is that one NFL team sees his potential as a pass rusher and falls in love, using a late 1st round pick on him. Some mock drafts have Okwara as a later 1st rounder right now, so it’s not impossible though I do think a 1st rounder selection is pretty unlikely.
For Okwara’s best-case scenario, he’ll need a team with few glaring needs to be ok with the potential of Okwara versus the risk of him coming off an injury and having challenges against the run. A team running a 3-4 defense makes a lot of sense for Okwara and might be more likely to take the risk.
Baltimore, Green Bay, Chicago, Houston, and Tennessee are all teams that don’t have a ton of needs who run 3-4 defenses who could be good fits for Okwara. Baltimore and Pittsburgh specifically seem like perfect fits for Okwara not just because of their schemes but also because of their history of drafting well and developing defensive players.
I’d love to see Okwara go off the board at the end of the first round, but I just don’t see it. Combine his leg injury and lack of production in 2019 with the concerns on his size to be an every-down DE in some schemes, and it just feels like too many variables for any team to take that leap of faith.
The lack of Pro Day at Notre Dame, along with every other school, and in-person visits with NFL teams could ultimately hurt Okwara as well since teams won’t have an up-close look at how Okwara has progressed in his recovery.
Even with the premium NFL teams place on pass rushers, I have a bad feeling that Okwara is closer to his worst-case scenario than his best. Mel Kiper Jr has Okwara going to the Buffalo Bills with the 54th overall pick in his most recent mock Draft, and that feels about right. I think Okwara ends up as a mid to late 2nd round pick.
That said, if he does last until the 3rd round, some NFL team is going to get an absolute steal just like the New York Giants got in 15 years ago when they drafted a guy named Justin Tuck in the 3rd round. Tuck had a thin frame and played his senior season recovering from a significant injury. That turned out alright for the Giants.