The Indianapolis Colts surprised most fans when they drafted linebacker Bobby Okereke in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He was a fine draft prospect but with All-Pro Darius Leonard and solid starter Anthony Walker already on the team, it seemed like a position that didn’t need to be addressed.
Okereke came into his rookie season with modest expectations and all but blew them out of the water in 2019. He finished last season with 43 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, 22 run stops, 1 sack, and 1 forced fumble while playing at SAM backer and as a fill in at MIKE when Leonard missed time. Pro Football Focus rated him as the top rookie linebacker in the NFL and as the 16th overall linebacker in the league during his rookie campaign.
For today’s film room, we will be looking at just how good Okereke was during his rookie season and discuss why he could be the future at the MIKE position alongside Darius Leonard.
One of the biggest reasons Okereke was drafted was his ability in pass coverage. His best traits that allow him to excel in this area are his long arms and his above average athleticism. This play is the perfect example of both. He is able to quickly redirect down the line and maintain great depth due to his athleticism and his long arms allow him to jump up and nearly come away with the highlight reel interception on the play. He has to come down with plays like this next year but this shows his promise.
Modern linebackers are tasked with so much in the pass game. They have to understand their zone drops and depth and need to be athletic enough to cover running backs, tight ends, and receivers in space. Here Okereke is tasked with covering Chiefs running back Damien Williams on the wheel route. He locates his assignment and stays in the hip pocket of the running back throughout the route. He could have got his head around at the end to make a play on the ball but he does do a good job of disrupting the running back’s hands as the ball arrives. Great coverage rep.
Okereke is a cerebral player. Both Leonard and Walker have raved about how smart he is over the past season. When he gets more experience under his belt, he’ll be able to combine that cerebral ability with his natural talents to become a really good pass defending linebacker. Here is a glimpse of that potential as he reads this quick slant on the goal line all the way and jumps the route to take the interception all the way back for two points. This is what you want to see out of a rookie linebacker.
While this is something that we will talk more about in the next section, I do want to rave about how fearless he is as a run defender. For a linebacker who is on the smaller side of the weight scale, he has no trouble filling run gaps and holding up at the point of attack. Here he meets the fullback in the hole and stands him up. This clogs up the run lane and allows for the rest of the defense to converge on the running back for a loss.
The obvious next step Okereke needs to make as a run defender is to develop his hands and improve his ability to stack and shed offensive linemen. I do think he has a great baseline as a run and chase linebacker who can make plays all over the field. This is an excellent play as the weakside backer as he tracks the ball carrier down across the field for a short gain.
Now let’s get to the part that really excites me. When I say that Okereke’s physicality is a plus trait, I’m not necessarily talking about his ability as a big hitter or tackler. I’m mostly talking about that fearless ability to meet blockers head on in the hole and disrupt run plays. It doesn’t matter if it is a 300+ linemen or an athletic fullback, Okereke will disrupt the run at whatever the cost. These next two plays are the perfect example of that. This first play he meets 350 pound offensive tackle in the hole and works his way around the block for the tackle for a loss. Look at how fearless he is on this play. Incredible.
This next play may be even more impressive as he meets the Dolphins fullback head on in the hole. Okereke is able to level the smaller fullback before making a play on the running back. Okereke is an absolute tank in the running game and it is so much fun seeing a physical linebacker lay into blockers like this to disrupt plays.
One more fun play...
I couldn’t conclude this piece without adding this play against the Titans. The Colts sent an all out blitz early against the Titans in this game and Okereke got a free shot at the quarterback. He showed great wherewithal to locate the ball and knock it free for the forced fumble. The future is really bright with this guy.
I thought Okereke was excellent in his rookie season. The game never looked too fast for him and it was rare to find him out of position. He improved each game and by the end of the year, he looked like a legitimate NFL linebacker.
My bold opinion, and one I expect many will disagree with, is that Okereke’s potential leaves me pretty comfortable letting Anthony Walker leave this upcoming free agency. This will let Okereke shift inside to the MIKE position for the future.
I do want to say that I think Walker is a fine player who is an excellent run run defender and a great leader in this locker room. If the price is right, I’d absolutely be all for his return for 2021 and the future. I just think his price may be too high after this season and it would be a bit foolish to pay a high price for a linebacker when you have a younger, cheaper, and probably better option behind him.
Okereke projects so well as the future at MIKE linebacker. He is a great athlete with excellent instincts and brings a different level of physicality than the other linebackers on the team. I his potential to grow could lead to a really good duo in the future with Leonard.