Levi Onwuzurike's rookie season with Lions marred by inconsistency
Allen Park — Brad Holmes was so enamored with Levi Onwuzurike that the Detroit Lions general manager explored trading into the back end of the first round to ensure landing the University of Washington defensive lineman in April's draft.
Instead, Holmes' staff convinced him to sit tight, and that patience paid off as Onwuzurike fell to the Lions with the ninth pick of the second round, No. 41 overall.
And Onwururike only added momentum to his own hype train with a high-energy, expletive-laced conference call following his selection, promising to come to Detroit to, well, put it politely, mess up offensive linemen and ruin their day.
Without question, Detroit needed both that attitude and production, but as we're rounding the corner into the final week of Onwuzurike's rookie season, his train seemingly never left the station.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, the rookie got off to a slow start. Hindered by a back injury during training camp that carried into the early stages of the season, he topped 20 defensive snaps just three times before the team's Week 9 bye.
His first, and so far only sack, came on Thanksgiving. Through 15 appearances in 16 games, he's tallied 34 tackles, but only two behind the line of scrimmage, with a paltry two hurries and zero quarterback hits to go with the lone sack.
Lions coach Dan Campbell and defensive line assistant Todd Wash are taking the diplomatic approach when talking about the young talent, levying softer criticisms than the production might seem to merit.
"Levi is kind of what he's been," Campbell told 97.1 FM about Onwuzurike after Sunday's game in Seattle. "He's been up and down. He flashed. Man, he shows out and the next play it's a learning experience. The next play, he shows out, and the next play it's learning. There's just some inexperience there that he's still having to get over bumps in the road, which he will."
Wash had another word for flashing — inconsistency.
"We've had some ups and downs with Levi," Wash said. "Some of the inconsistency with technique he's still kind of at the spot where we sit and say 'Oh boy, that's a heck of play' and 'Oh boy, that's not what we're looking for.' The biggest thing is we're constantly, constantly working with Levi. It's just consistent technique and playing with good pad level. He's got all the traits and the skill level that's needed. We just gotta continue to get him better."
Ahead of the Seattle game, Onwuzurike said he was looking to make a bigger dent in the stat sheet the final two weeks of the season. But despite seeing 36 snaps, his second biggest workload of the season, he tallied three tackles, none for a loss, and no quarterback pressures as the Seahawks ran all over the Lions en route to 51 points.
Obviously, there's valuable experience to be gained in the season finale against Green Bay, but the upcoming offseason looms as a far bigger opportunity for Onwuzurike to make the necessary improvements to start unlocking the potential Holmes, Campbell and Wash still see in the player.
"The biggest thing for me is he needs to take care of his body," Wash said. "We had some issues, obviously, in training camp and some back issues here as the season has gone on, but the biggest thing is he's got to get his body right in the offseason.
"That's the first thing that we'll challenge him on is getting his body right," Wash continued. "Going into this game, the thing that we want to see is — he has flashed some physical dominance and then he's had some plays where you go 'Damn.' And we just have to get consistency out of him and we got to put the pressure on him in practice and when we get into some games he just needs to come out and execute and play the way that he's taught. Because he does have that skill set. We got to to see him flip the switch and have a good week this week."
Getting his body right means adding lower-body strength and flexibility. That will help Onwuzurike with his leverage issues and getting overpowered at the point of attack, which has happened far too often for a rookie.
As for his pass-rush production, that's arguably been the biggest disappointment. The Lions have struggled to generate interior pressure on the pocket for years and he was supposed to be part of the solution, not a perpetuation of a preexisting problem.
"I know everybody is down on Levi, but we're not," Wash said. "...I think the arrow is definitely up on Levi. He's gonna have a bright future. When it comes to the pass rush, he's got some ability. He's not always in there on those pass-rush situations that we have at this point in time. But once again, as the career goes on for Levi, you see him having the ability to affect the quarterback and continue to get better. He's just real young and I think that's kinda common for defensive lineman as a rookie."