They say this edge rusher class isn’t seen as a particularly deep position for the 2018 NFL Draft. In fact, the narrative that continues to be conveyed — whether intentionally or not — is that the real talent all but stops soon after Bradley Chub comes off the board. While pure talent and an excellent work ethic is indeed a difficult combination to find down the list, it still exists.
If you were to add ideal length and size to that equation, the list thins even further, but there are a couple prospects who offer two of the three and could find themselves high on some team’s board as a result. Naturally, any prospective team’s focus depends on which of the three qualities they hope to acquire from the rest of the field of edge rushers.
But, among this year’s group, there’s one who has taken care of what he can control on the field and will just have to rely on teams to overlook his lack of elite-level length and size in order to bring him into their franchise.
Bill Polian did that once. One pretty significant situation in fact that affected the success of the Colts racking up sacks and stripping the football from quarterbacks for more than a decade. With the 138th selection of the 2003 NFL Draft, Polian grabbed an undersized defensive end/outside linebacker from Alabama A&M named Robert Mathis and the rest is history.
At 6-foot-2, and a playing weight of about 245 pounds (drafted at 235), Mathis tore up opposing offenses for years using his speed, technique and a relentless pursuit of the quarterback each and every snap. One of my favorites from this class looks, and plays with much of the same fervor.
Ogbonnia Okoronkwo stands 6-foot-1, 253 pounds and was an absolute pain to deal with for opposing quarterbacks for the last two seasons in the Big-12. Okoronkwo racked up 29 tackles for loss and 17 sacks between his junior and senior seasons and was respected enough to earn the Big-12 defensive player of the year award — shared with Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the best with player comparisons, and his comparison isn’t solely based on his frame. But, his aggression, play speed, technique and ability to string multiple moves together is what brings back the vision of Mathis in his heyday to the mind.
Okoronkwo was easily one of the 5 most enjoyable edge rushers to watch extensive tape on, and with the Indianapolis Colts changing defensive schemes, he could very well be a shimmer in the eye of Chris Ballard and Matt Eberflus.
They want speed along the front seven, he’s got it with some to spare. They want a relentless rusher who attacks with a variance of moves including a quick jab step and a nice spin move, he can do that too. They also want a reliable run defender who can command the edge and make plays on the football. Though he has the very real potential of achieving, and excelling in that area as well, it will — at least initially in his career — be a bit of a work in progress.
The reality of Okoronkwo’s game, however, is that he does everything else very well and could become a true menace in the NFL. His lack of size is notable, but he flashes the functional strength and determination to battle anyone he’ll encounter. There are so many facets of his game to admire in terms of his ability to threaten the pocket from any angle, and the athletic traits to remain diverse enough to cover and play with leverage.
There are projections all over the map for Okoronkwo at this point in the pre-draft process, but I believe he is talented and instinctive enough to be a second-round pick for the Colts and excel in the Colts new defensive approach.
Is Okoronkwo comparable to Mathis when he came into the league? I believe he is, and should the Colts be in a position to scoop him up, he’ll be playing in a very similar scheme which allowed Mathis to show off his unique set of skills, cultivating a perennial 10-sack pass rusher out of a small school prospect who didn’t fit the mold either.