Mon, 16 May 2022

2021 position breakdown: Outside linebackers

Detroit Lions
21 Jan 2022, 00:25 GMT+10

Tim Twentyman

The good: Charles Harris turned out to be a terrific signing in free agency for the Lions and general manager Brad Holmes, as the fifth-year veteran had his best professional season to date by leading the Lions with 7.5 sacks. He fit perfectly in Detroit's 3-4 scheme as an edge-rushing outside linebacker. The Lions obviously have a big decision to make with his pending free agency.

Second-year outside linebacker Julian Okwara showed good progress throughout the season and was playing his best football at the end of the year, which hopefully is a springboard into a very good offseason and productive third year in 2022.

Austin Bryant, who played in 14 games after playing in just 10 total his first two seasons because of injury, showed some flashes and finished with 31 tackles (21 solo) and a career-high 4.5 sacks.

Okwara and Bryant are two young pass rushers who appear to have a high ceiling.

The bad: The Lions didn't see much of Romeo Okwara and Trey Flowers in 2021, the team's two starting outside linebackers to begin the year.

Okwara, who was coming off a career-high 10.0 sacks in 2020, ruptured his Achilles tendon in an October loss in Chicago Week 4. Okwara said after the season he still hasn't started running yet, so rehabbing the injury will probably take up most of his offseason.

Flowers played in just seven games for the second consecutive season due to injury. He battled shoulder and knee injuries this season, and he has recorded just 3.5 sacks the last two seasons after notching 7.0 in his first season in Detroit in 2019 in 15 games.

Injuries are a part of the NFL, and they hit Detroit's outside linebacker unit pretty hard. The good thing is that some young players like Julian Okwara and Bryant got to play more, and they'll be better off moving forward because of it.

Several UDFAs played valuable roles for Lions last season 2021 position breakdown: Quarterbacks 2021 position breakdown: Defensive line

Key stat: Detroit's 30 sacks in 17 games were the third lowest in the NFL this season behind only Philadelphia (29.0) and Atlanta (18.0). The Lions had a month-long lull of sack-less games in the middle of the season.

Detroit had the ninth highest blitz percentage (27.3) in the NFL this season, according to Pro Football Reference stats, but it still didn't lead to a lot of sacks. Detroit's 66 quarterback hurries ranked middle of the pack in the NFL.

Free agents: Charles Harris (unrestricted), Rashod Berry (exclusive rights), Jessie Lemonier (exclusive rights)

Harris is obviously the big name here. He had a breakout season with the Lions and found a scheme in Detroit that really fits his skill set. He led the team with a career-high 7.5 sacks and will likely get some interest around the league in free agency.

Lemonier was inactive most of the year, but got a chance to play down the stretch and notched 14 tackles and 1.5 sacks in the last five games of the season. As exclusive rights free agents, if the Lions want Lemonier and Berry back in 2022, they will be Lions.

Draft: If the Lions want to boost their pass rush, this is a good draft to do so.

It's very early in the pre-draft process, but the two highest graded prospects currently available in the draft are Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson and Oregon pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, with each player given a "rare prospect" grade by ESPN.

Both players were primary stand-up rushers in college, but they did play from the three-point stance at times, too. Both seem like a great fit to Aaron Glenn's defense as 3-4 outside linebackers with some versatility to their games, if the Lions decide to go that route with the No. 2 overall pick.

Other names to consider later in the first round (Detroit has the Rams' first-round pick) or on Day 2, are: David Ojabo (Michigan), DeMarvin Leal (Texas A&M), Travon Walker (Georgia), George Karlaftis (Iowa) and Cameron Thomas (San Diego State).

MVP: Harris had a breakout season with the Lions in 2021. A first-round pick of the Dolphins in 2017, he never really fit into their scheme as a traditional hand-in-the-dirt defensive end. He spent three seasons in Miami and totaled 3.5 sacks before being traded to Atlanta in 2020 for a seventh-round pick. Harris had three sacks in Atlanta in 2020, before signing as a free agent in Detroit last offseason.

Harris had sacks in each of Detroit's first four games and finished the season with 65 tackles (34 solo), 7.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 16 quarterback hits and two forced fumbles.

Most improved: Second-year outside linebacker Julian Okwara went from a healthy scratch Week 1 to a consistently productive player by the end of the year.

Okwara, a third-round pick in 2020, only played in six games as a rookie because of injury, so this season was really an extension of his rookie campaign.

He recorded three sacks in the team's final three games, including a two-sack performance Week 18 against Green Bay to give him 5.0 sacks on the year, which was second on the team to only Harris' 7.5.

Quotable: "I think we all know Charles is a free agent. We would all love to have him. He has decisions he has to make, but I mean, I would love to play next to Charles for as long as possible," Romeo Okwara said after the season.

"Man, I think we could be really, really special just have to keep grinding. As guys get healthy, we'll continue putting the defense together. I think we have a chance to be really, really special here."

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