As the days drew nearer to the Detroit Lions’ annual Super Bowl - also known as the NFL draft - most Lions fans seemed in a confident mood. Holding the seventh overall pick, it was almost guaranteed that the Lions would acquire one of the top-tier college prospects available. How could they f*** it up?
Thankfully, the new leadership team at Allen Park, led by incoming GM Brad Holmes, managed not to fall into the trap of overthinking the pick. After the Dolphins took speedster receiver Jayden Waddle at #6, the Lions were able to select the dominating Oregon Ducks offensive tackle, Penei Sewell, with the following pick. Cue high fives and chest bumps all around the Lions’ draft room.
With the first day of the draft in the books and despite having secured Sewell, Holmes and new head coach Dan Campbell would most likely have had a fairly sleepless night, knowing that they still had many holes to fill in a Lions roster ravaged by three seasons of Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia’s negligence.
The Lions possessed the ninth pick in the 2nd round (41st overall) which meant there were a whole host of variables that would decide whether their prime day two target was still on the board when the Lions were next on the clock.
The perceived wisdom viewed the most burning needs for the Lions to be in the wide receiver room and in the secondary, so with a whole bunch of talented pass catchers still available plus top-ranked safety Trevor Moehrig of TCU there for the taking, the Lions eventual pick caused some incredulity.
When Roger Goodall announced the Lions second-round pick as Levi Onwuzurike, a 295 lb, 6’3” defensive tackle from Washington, this was not what anyone outside the Lions draft room was expecting. Needless to say, Lions WhatsApp groups and the Twittersphere soon went into meltdown.
Let’s look at why the pick initially provoked such a strong reaction. During free agency, the Lions had picked up DT Michael Brockers in a trade with the Los Angeles Rams, seemingly to lead a new-look defensive line.
Brockers' quality as a DT is undoubted, but he was not one of the Rams’ superstars, often struggling to shed blockers and make the big plays that his fellow linemen Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh were capable of.
However, Brockers brings the experience of playing for a perennial playoff contender to the Lions locker room and was expected to be the cornerstone of the D-line, as the Lions concentrated on finding talent in other key positions that were screaming out for attention; further additions to the interior of the D-line were not anticipated until perhaps later in day three with so many positions flashing red on the depth chart.
Onwuzurike is regarded as one of the top defensive tackles in what is widely considered a down year at the position. A high school teammate of Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, he started two seasons at Washington before opting out of the 2020 season due to Covid-19 concerns. He earned first-team All-Pac-12 honours as a junior and finished his college career with seven sacks and 16 tackles for loss in 39 games.
This lack of production could be one reason that he fell out of the first round. Lining up at nose tackle in the Huskies’ 4-3 defensive scheme certainly did not help these numbers, and the NFL draft analysts certainly had their concerns.
"He’s not a sack guy, but disruptive. He never really posted the sack numbers that you’d prefer to see from someone with his size and overall physicality and overall ability. He showed flashes in that area with the Huskies, and his motor is good. I think if he’s coached up properly, instead of just being disruptive, he could finish and get more sacks alongside the interior.”
Mel Kiper Jnr, ESPN draft analyst
What has become abundantly clear is that the Lions approached the draft with certain player characteristics and qualities in mind, and head coach Dan Campbell has been typically blunt about his own top objectives, which are making his team tougher, bigger and meaner.
Interviewed after he had been selected by Detroit, Onwuzurike quickly showed the world why he could just be a Dan Campbell type of guy.
“I like f***ing people up. I like to get off the line and just put my helmet and my hands on an offensive lineman and f*** up an offensive scheme, pretty much. I like pushing them back 2-3 yards and just making them feel like shit.”
Onwuzurkie certainly has the physical traits that make him an attractive pick. He showed great speed scores at his pro-day including a 4.88-sec 40-yard dash, and his Relative Athletic Scores (8.74) ranked 167th out of the 1,309 defensive tackles rated since 1987.
Despite his relatively light frame, his ability to use his technique and power to create leverage means he copes well against double coverage, and his hand placement coupled with a great first step makes him an excellent disruptor, capable of resetting the line of scrimmage.
However, his mental abilities could well have been an even bigger pull for the Lions scouting staff, possessing excellent football instincts in being able to read the field ahead of him. Indeed, not all NFL analysts were lukewarm on Onwuzurike:-
“Levi Onwuzurike, my #1 DT, is such a fun watch. 290 lbs but moves like he’s 275 and dominates like he’s 330. Incredibly quick get-off, controls O-linemen with his hands so well. First Penei Sewell, now Levi Onwuzurike. The Lions just loading up on ass kickers.”
Chris Simms, PFT motormouth
With the addition of Onwuzurike and Brockers, the Lions’ defense could witness a huge transformation of fortunes. In the past few seasons, the Lions have lacked any semblance of pressure from the inside (and it could be argued precious little from the outside either, but I digress) plus the kind of linemen that can occupy blockers and allow blitzers to penetrate the backfield.
However, the Lions also drafted Alim McNeill in the third round, a 317-pound nose tackle from NC State with some decent pass-rushing capabilities, and Onwuzurike will also be competing for snaps with veterans Nick Williams and a hopefully healthy Da’Shawn Hand.
Certainly, his new defensive coordinator will be expecting Onwuzurike to back up his big talk on draft night with some serious production.
“I told him that (when) he made that statement, I better see it when we put the pads on. With him saying that and what I see in college, I expect nothing less from that player.”
Aaron Glenn, Lions DC
It is plain to see that the Lions have begun Brad Holmes’ “re-tool” of the Lions roster by building from the trenches, and the investment in the D-line with their second and third picks clearly signals a recognition from the Lions’ front office that this will not be a quick-fix, sticking plaster over the gaps process. And let’s not forget how woeful the Lions pass rush and run blocking have been over the past three seasons. Truly dire.
Onwuzurike is certainly a player capable of making an impact but how he fits into the Lions new 3-4 scheme remains to be seen, with several veteran players also fighting for snaps. But isn’t that how successful franchises are built, through fierce internal competition?
If the Lions coaches can hone his technique and iron out a few weaknesses, this light-footed but heavy-handed DT could be an entertaining player to watch in a revamped Detroit D-line.
How do I feel about this pick?
Well, I’m not going to pretend I was very amused when it was announced! I’m firmly in the camp of those who believe we absolutely must provide Jared Goff with as much help as possible in his first season if we are going to build his confidence and the new offense is going to be a success; and with Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones departed, our receiving corps looks threadbare.
Also, after watching the Super Bowl, and seeing Antoine Winfield Jnr face off against Tyrann Mathieu, two guys who are capable of making things happen instantly with a game-changing play, I was hoping that we would invest in a safety that would breathe some life into our powderpuff secondary.
But I get it. I’ve listened to Holmes and Campbell, seen how they operate and how they have articulated their philosophy of how this franchise needs to improve, organically over the next 2-3 seasons, not via another quick fix.
Onwuzurike possesses exactly what we need; athleticism, attitude and by building from the inside out, we can put the framework in place to add more young talent, especially with two 1st round picks next year after the Stafford trade.
My expectation is that by investing heavily in defense in this draft, with Onwuzurike and McNeil joining Iffy Melifonwu (CB) and Derrick Barnes (LB) on the roster, Aaron Glenn should improve the defensive unit to be AT LEAST average, which will relieve the pressure on an offense that has been asked repeatedly to perform miracles to win games.
Welcome to Detroit, Levi! Here’s to f***ing shit up!