The Detroit Lions haven’t made dramatic upgrades to the defensive line this offseason, but that could be by design given what they already have on the roster.
After losing the 2022 season to injury, it can be easy to forget about Levi Onwuzurike, who was expected to do big things last year but had to be shelved thanks to a lingering back injury. Coming into 2023, though, there is still hope for the lineman to rebound for his team after surgery.
Speaking to the media at the NFL owners meetings on Tuesday, March 28, Dan Campbell was asked about the progress of Onwuzurike, who is coming off back surgery. As Campbell cautioned to reporters, back injuries are tough, but Onwuzurike is doing good and will be getting a chance to prove himself in 2023.
“Dan Campbell on Levi Onwuzurike the other day: “We talked to him a couple of weeks ago, he was doing good, the rehab has gone well, but you just don’t know. You don’t know with a back. But I mean certainly, he’s going to get an opportunity if the body will allow it,” Birkett tweeted after listening to Campbell speak.
Many could have assumed that Onwuzurike could be an odd man out given how the Lions have improved and figure to improve the rest of the offseason up front. Campbell and the Lions, though, look to want to give him a chance to prove he can help after he was a 2021 second-round pick.
Back injuries are tough to come through, and many careers have been ended prematurely thanks to that dynamic. The worry for Onwuzurike is that could play out, but to hear he is doing well is certainly good news for the Lions.
Come the offseason workouts and then training camp, the team will have to see where he’s at. As of now, it looks as if Campbell and the team are cautiously optimistic about what he could offer after a year away rehabbing.
Levi Onwuzurike’s Stats & Highlights
The Lions continue to need some major help in the trenches and Onwurzurike can theoretically provide it for now and in the future as well if he is able to stay healthy.
He collected 95 tackles in his time in college with Washington to go with 16 tackles for-loss and 7 sacks. Onwurzurike opted out of the 2020 season, but he showed well in 2019 when he did play. Teams looking to draft Onwuzurike at the time were likely looking at his ability to be physical in the trenches while offering a bit of upside as a pass rusher.
In Detroit, Onwuzurike started to show some signs of coming into his own on the field midway through the 2021 season. After coming through an early injury, he collected nine total tackles and showed some of the burst the Lions are hoping for when he secured his first sack on Thanksgiving Day 2021 vs. Chicago:
Before he could put up any stats in 2022, Onwuzurike was shelved and had back surgery, meaning his sophomore campaign was a total wash.
In time, the Lions hope that Onwuzurike develops into a force, but he will need health for that to play out. If he can come back strong, he could find a way to scrap for a role. It’s clear the roster may not be ready to wait for him, though.
Lions Still Need Defensive Line Help
The rest of this offseason, the Lions figure to be in the market for some major help for the defensive front, and perhaps even at the spot where Onwuzurike plays in the middle of the line.
So far, the Lions have added veterans like Isaiah Buggs and John Cominsky back into the room after they played a major role for the team during the 2022 season. Their return will help fortify the depth of the group overall.
There are plenty of top prospects the Lions could look at during the draft, including defensive tackles Jalen Carter and Calijah Kancey in the first-round, and also edge players like Tyree Wilson, Will Anderson Jr., Bryan Bresee, Myles Murphy and others.
Within free agency, the Lions were involved with Calais Campbell before he signed with Atlanta, so the potential does exist for the team to add another veteran body. A player with team familiarity in A’Shawn Robinson could also make sense for a low-cost addition to fortify the front.
Detroit finished very poorly in run defense last season, having allowed 2,491 yards on the ground and over 146 per-game, which placed at 29th in the league.
Onwuzurike, if healthy, could certainly help improve those numbers. The health is a big caveat, but Campbell at least seems ready to be giving the youngster another chance to impress.