Here at Niners Nation, we're presenting a series called "90-in-90". We'll be looking at every player on the 49ers offseason roster, one player per post, from now until the start of training camp.
In light of the 49ers contract extension with defensive lineman Justin Smith, I thought it would be fitting to put together a 90-in-90 post on a player who will hopefully learn a lot from Smith. Considering Lawrence Okoye entered the 49ers offseason workout program with zero organized American football experience, learning from one of the best in the game will hopefully prove at least a little bit helpful.
The 49ers signed Okoye as an undrafted free agent after the former British Olympic discus thrower decided rdto become a professional football player. He had begun his athletic endeavors as a rugby player, switched to discus, and then set his sights on the NFL. Okoye joined the 49ers in part because he had a chance to learn from defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. Although Tomsula is relatively low-profile outside of San Francisco, he coached in NFL Europe, and is generally recognized as a great defensive line coach. It made perfect sense for a potential defensive lineman coming from Europe.
Since Okoye has not played organized American football before, scouting reports are limited. Rugby brings a certain physicality that can translate to the NFL, but there are differences between rugby and playing defensive line. As Vic Fangio said, Okoye has not dealt with double teams, learning extensive schemes, or even just being involved in contact work.
For now, we are left with the physical numbers we gained from his workout at the super regional combine in Dallas. He stands 6'5, 304 pounds, ran a 4.84-second 40 and benched 225 pounds 30 times. There is zero doubt that he is an athletic freak. Coach Harbaugh was asked if he would get any work on the offensive line, but he said the team will have Okoye focus on the defensive line. The question will be how this all translates in the NFL.
What to expect in 2013
It is tough to project exactly where Okoye will end up before seeing him in game action against opposing offensive lineman. If he struggles, I could see the 49ers attempting to slip him through waivers and onto the practice squad. A practice squad player can sign anywhere at any time, but it sounds like he is fine working his way up with the 49ers.
If Okoye does enough to either justify a spot on the 53-man roster, or at least leave the 49ers scared he might be claimed off waivers, then it gets interesting. I could see him in a similar situation as Joe Looney last year, where he is inactive every week. The 49ers were willing to stash several players for most of the year. Those players will be expected to take a step forward this year, potentially opening a spot for Okoye.
If the 49ers did keep Okoye on the 53-man roster, they could very well find some use for him on special teams. If he can show discipline in coverage and return work, he has the kind of athleticism that could excel on special teams. Imagine a guy his size rumbling toward you?
I would be surprised if he contributed on defense this year. I suspect the team will work exclusively on his pass rush skills in year one, since that requires less thinking. He has the speed and athleticism to be a dynamic pass rush threat, so why spend time working on dropping into coverage in this his first year? We don't know if he'll make the leap to be a credible threat as a rookie, but I think that's what he works on.
Odds of making the roster
I think the 49ers will do everything in their power to keep him with the team in 2013, whether it be on the 53-man roster or on the practice squad. He could get claimed on waivers at the end of training camp, which leaves the 49ers with an issue. If Okoye shows even a flash of talent in the preseason, and the 49ers wanted to stash him on the practice squad for a year or two, I have to think there would be a team willing to grab him and sit him on their 53-man roster all season.
If he shows next to nothing, it is possible there is still a team willing to do that. What do you do if you're the 49ers? Do you use up a space for development? I think it's perfectly reasonable given their use of it for Joe Looney, A.J. Jenkins and others this past year.
How do you see this playing out during preseason action, and by the end of training camp?