Malleable, versatile Julian Okwara starting to deliver on potential for Lions
Allen Park — Early in training camp, Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell challenged second-year outside linebacker Julian Okwara to step up, be relentless in everything he does and to carry his practice field energy into Sunday, where performance matters most.
Okwara went on to play more than any Detroit defender in the preseason, but when it seemed as if he was ready to spread his wings after missing most of his rookie season due to injury, the Lions made him a healthy scratch for the season opener. And in Week 2, while active for that contest, he was granted four measly snaps.
Around that time, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn insisted Okwara's time was ahead. Now, five weeks later, we can say that's finally coming to fruition.
Since that Week 2 game against Green Bay, Okwara has seen his workload steadily increase, from 10 defensive snaps the following week to a career-high 35 last Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams. And with that, the production Holmes and Campbell sought has been attached, including the first two sacks of Okwara's career the past two games.
"He reminds me of the role I used to play when I was in college, kind of a defensive end. He can drop, get in coverage a little bit, can rush the passer," teammate Derrick Barnes said. "He’s a versatile player. He has speed, he’s very athletic, he brings a lot to this defense. The coaches are utilizing him in good ways, and I know he’s excited."
A big part of Okwara's development has been Glenn's patient approach, grasping what the inexperienced player does best without overwhelming him with too much responsibility as he gets acclimated to his role within the team's new scheme.
Glenn said he's been careful not to overload Okwara, an effort designed to keep that development trending linearly upward. One thing the coach has enjoyed about the process is the player's willingness to be malleable and coached hard.
"The same thing with Julian Okwara, try to mold him on how to dip and lean and use all the skills that he has to go out there and be successful," Glenn said. "It's not like you can't do that with a veteran player, but some veteran players are stuck in their ways because they've been doing it for so long. It's not their fault. I know I was the same way. If I was doing something 10 years, there's a good chance I'm going to continue to do that. It's just something about having a young team, and you and your coaching staff being able to see it just mature over the weeks."
Known for his ability to rush the passer coming out of Notre Dame, Okwara said his biggest development this season has been playing the run. He credited outside linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard and defensive line coach Todd Wash for pushing him to be better with his technique in that facet of the game, which is helping Okwara be more of an every down player than a situational one.
As for his recent playing time and performance, Okwara said he'd trade it all for some victories.
"I feel all right," he said. "I feel like I could do a lot better. The stats are whatever, but I want to win games and just get this defense to where it needs to be. I’m not really worried about that. I know all the sacks, yeah, got my first one, second one, whatever, but if we’re not winning games, all that other stuff doesn’t mean anything.”
The Philadelphia Eagles will be without their top running back when they come to town this Sunday, placing Miles Sanders on injured reserve Friday morning. He had been sidelined with an ankle injury suffered in last weekend's loss to the Las Vegas Raiders.
The absence probably would have been more significant last season, when Sanders racked up more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns in 12 games.
This year, the first under coach Nick Sirianni, the Eagles have shied away from leaning on their ground game. Sanders has averaged just nine carries per contest, peaking at 15 in the team's season-opening win over Atlanta.
With Sanders out, rookie Kenneth Gainwell figures to see a bigger workload. The fifth-round pick has been effective in limited playing time, averaging 4.6 yards per carry, while catching 19 of 31 passes his direction. Veteran Boston Scott also projects to be part of the backfield mix, carrying the ball seven times for 24 yards after Sanders exited.
The Lions currently have two open roster spots after parting ways with defensive back Daryl Worley and defensive lineman Eric Banks this week. The Lions could leave those spots open through the bye — seeing as they're relatively healthy and only need 45 players active on game day — or they could fill them with either a player eligible to return off injured reserve or promote someone off practice squad.
Offensive tackle Taylor Decker, as well as defensive linemen Kevin Strong and Da'Shawn Hand, each remain on injured reserve despite returning to practice in recent weeks. From that group, Campbell said Hand is the closest to rejoining the team.
Hand, a fourth-round pick in 2018, has had horrific injury luck during his career, spending time on the injury list each of his first four seasons. He's been out with a groin injury since early August.
The team's clock on Decker — 21 days after he returned to practice earlier this month — is close to expiring. He suffered a setback to his surgically repaired finger during his first week back on the field and hasn't been able to practice since, making his anticipated activation an uncertainty.
"All options are on the table," Campbell said when asked if the team could activate Decker, even while he continues to recover.
Cornerbacks Jerry Jacobs and AJ Parker both returned to practice in a limited capacity on Friday after sitting out Thursday's session. Jacobs' absence had been the result of an illness, while Parker is working through a neck injury he suffered last Sunday against the Rams.
Both Jacobs and Parker are listed questionable for the game against the Eagles, along with outside linebacker Trey Flowers (knee) and running backs D'Andre Swift (groin) and Jamaal Williams (thigh).