Shaq Leonard’s Former ‘Unheralded Running Mate’ Picked as Giants ‘X-Factor’

Bobby Okereke

Getty An All-Pro's former "running mate" has been named the New York Giants "X-factor" for the 2023 NFL season.

The biggest X-factor for the New York Giants isn’t an All-Pro. In fact, he’s spent the past four seasons in the shadow of one of the elite players in the NFL.

Bobby Okereke is finally ready to earn plaudits of his own after playing alongside three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Shaq Leonard for the Indianapolis Colts. Inside ‘backer Okereke was Leonard’s “unheralded running mate, but he has length, smarts and speed,” according to Ben Solak of The Ringer.

Solak believes “if Okereke is the Mike the Giants paid for (four years, $40 million), then this Giants defense has actually rounded into a talented unit across the board.”

The Giants and defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale are counting on Okereke to be a signal-caller, but also to have the range to wreck both phases of offenses. It’s a tall order, but the 27-year-old possesses the raw, athletic tools to answer the challenge.

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Okereke’s first task will be to bolster how the Giants stand up against the run. Martindale’s unit surprisingly allowed opposing runners to gain 5.2 yards per carry, the second-highest behind only the Los Angeles Chargers.

The Giants ought to have been tougher to run on, given their talent along the front seven. Nose tackle Dexter Lawrence II dominated over centers, while defensive tackle Leonard Williams still proved tough to move when healthy.

Unfortunately, Martindale didn’t have the same level of talent at the heart of his linebacker corps. Veteran retreads like Jaylon Smith and Jarrad Davis were needed to plug gaps, but it hardly made a difference.

Okereke can be a game-changer against the run after being in on 151 tackles, including 99 solo stops, last season. At 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, Okereke isn’t afraid to stick his head into gaps along the trenches and help clog running lanes.

No. 58’s ability to stuff the run was highlighted by Justin Penik of Talkin’ Giants, who cited Next Gen Stats crediting Okereke with tying for 10th among linebackers for “defensive stops.”

Okereke needs to be a force against the run, but he’ll also be expected to be an asset on the blitz. Martindale designs and calls pressure more than most, if not all play-callers, proved by the Giants leading the NFL with a 39.7 blitz percentage last season, per Pro Football Reference.

That number could rise with Okereke in the mix. He blitzed 59 times across his last two seasons in Indianapolis, so Okereke is a weapon Martindale can use to disrupt passing attacks.

While he’ll be a factor in every phase, Okereke’s greater value will be from how well he transfers his knowledge of Martindale’s playbook to his teammates. As Dan Duggan of The Athletic reported, Okereke has already been confirmed as the wearer of the green dot.

Okereke will be the quarterback of this defense and the one in touch with Martindale on game days. The player’s ability to get everybody lined up and make adjustments on the fly will be key to success on this side of the ball.

Fortunately, Okereke won’t be short of help after the Giants made moves to protect their primary linebacker.

New-Look Front Can Protect Giants’ X-Factor

Keeping linebackers clean is vital for the kind of 3-4 base front Martindale still prefers. Lawrence and Williams will occupy their share of blockers, but a lot will hinge on two new faces expected to man the middle of the D-line.

The Giants wisely signed nose tackles Rakeem Nunez-Roches and A’Shawn Robinson in free agency. Both will give Big Blue greater bulk and more oomph against the run, but they’ll also let Okereke run to the ball in seek and destroy mode.

Nunez-Roches can absorb and beat multiple blocks to still stuff the run. That’s what the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Super Bowl winner did on this play against the San Francisco 49ers, highlighted by Nick Falato of SB Nation’s Big Blue View.

A sturdier front will keep offensive linemen off Okereke, but the latter will also be helped if Isaiah Simmons can make the grade inside. The Giants traded a seventh-round pick to the Arizona Cardinals for the versatile Simmons, who was “playing inside linebacker” at his first practice with his new team, according to ESPN’s Jordan Raanan.

That trend continued against the New York Jets in preseason, per numbers from Jon Macri of Pro Football Focus.

Having talented athletes in front of and alongside him can only help Okereke play up to the potential Solak identified.

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