Hope for better Lions defense hinges on key free agent

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The Lions don't have much to believe in defensively. Of course they don't. They just broke franchise records for defensive futility. They do have the prospect of a healthy pass-rushing duo next season in Romeo Okwara and Trey Flowers.

"Us together, it was one game where we kind of did that, the Jacksonville game this year," Flowers said Monday as the Lions closed the book on a season in which they allowed the most yards and the most points in the NFL. "And I told him that game, I’m like, 'Man, I’ve been waiting for this game, I’ve been waiting for this to be the game plan.'"

That game plan produced Detroit's most complete defensive effort of the season, albeit against the worst team in the NFL. It was one of only two times both Flowers and Okwara played at least 70 percent of the snaps on defense. Flowers had a sack and a forced fumble; Okwara recovered that fumble and added two QB hits and a tackle for loss.

Two games later, Flowers fractured his forearm and was done for the year. Okwara was just getting started. He put up eight sacks over Detroit's final 11 games to produce the team's first double-digit sack total since Ziggy Ansah in 2017. Just in time for free agency. So now the Lions face a key decision on one of their only playmakers on defense.

If it were up to Flowers, Okwara would certainly be back.

"Both of us being out there, being able to do what we do, that has me excited," he said. "It had me excited. But like I said, that's lot of talking. You gotta do it."

It was a huge season for Okwara. After regressing in 2019, he finished 10th in the NFL in sacks. And he assured himself a significant raise in 2021, a raise he may or may not get from the Lions. Okwara made $2.75 million this season. The three highest-paid pass rushers on last year's free agent market got an average of $14 million per year. Okwara, 25, is younger than all of them.

"It’s a testament to what he did this year," Flowers said. "Y’all didn’t see much of it as far as after practice the things he’s done. He’s hard-working, he’s focused."

Okwara has always been that way. The difference this year, said Flowers, "was just his keen focus on his craft and how he was able to hone that natural athletic ability into precision, into eliminating false steps, into making it this much quicker or judging hand placements and hitting them right on time. I think that allowed him to be more confident and go out there and do what he did this year."

With a new regime and likely a new defensive staff arriving this offseason, it's hard to assume anything about the roster. It's hard to even assume Okwara will want to return. But the Lions have every reason to keep him. Just one of the NFL's bottom 10 teams in sacks this season and just two of the bottom 15 made the playoffs. Detroit finished tied for 26th.

The Lions have to find a pass rush next season. Together, Okwara and Flowers represent their best hope.

"We can be whatever we want to be," Flowers said.