It feels like a distant memory, Romeo Okwara's breakout season, one of the Lions' last gasps of hope under Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn. Even Okwara admits, "That season was a long time ago." A torn Achilles and two aching years of recovery would follow.
Now, Okwara says his body finally "feels like it did that year," except "maybe even better."
"More explosive, stronger, faster," Okwara said Wednesday after the Lions' second practice of minicamp. "Whatever it is in terms of just elevating my pass-rushing moves.”
Okwara announced himself in 2020 with 10 sacks and three forced fumbles, the lone bright spot of the worst defense in the NFL. That earned him a three-year, $37 million deal that offseason from the Lions' new regime led by GM Brad Holmes.
“I think I can make even greater strides this year," said Okwara.
The Lions would happily take anything close to what he did in 2020. They've added several new pass-rushers since, including Aidan Hutchinson and James Houston who helped Detroit break the NFL rookie record for sacks (20.5) last season. Okwara returned late in the year and notched two sacks himself in the Lions' Week 15 win over the Jets, but was quiet in his four other games. He admitted Wednesday he "was pretty far" from 100 percent when he got back into action for the first time in 14 months.
Okwara's uncertain health left Holmes with little choice this offseason. The Lions couldn't commit $14.5 million in cap space in 2023 to a player whose production isn't a given. They could have released Okwara and created a good chunk of cap room. They created even more when he accepted a $9 million pay cut to stay in Detroit.
"Detroit’s my home," Okwara said. "And I think it was really important for me to be here and just keep building on what we’ve started since I’ve been here. So I didn’t really think too much of it. That’s just part of the business and I’m glad to be here."
On his restructured deal, Okwara has a base salary of $2 million. He can make some of his money back in game-by-game roster bonuses, but that doesn't seem to concern him as he enters his eighth NFL season, his sixth in Detroit. The Lions finished last in the NFC North each of Okwara's first four seasons here, and now they're favored to win it. He smiled and said, "I think that's a great thing for us." A division title is something worth playing for.
"Whatever’s expected for us, we gotta work for it," Okwara said. "We gotta keep our head down and just work."
After re-signing with the Lions two years ago, Okwara said he was driven by the dream of doing something special in Detroit with his younger brother and teammate Julian Okwara. He reiterated Wednesday that it's "always on our minds."
If they're both on the field this season, they can start to fulfill it.