Each year, we like to run a series of posts called "90-in-90." The idea is that we'll take a look at every player on the roster, from the very bottom to the top and break them down a few ways. This roster will certainly change, and some days we'll have more than one so it's not exactly 90 players in 90 days. At this point, it's a name we're keeping around for street cred.
Last spring, the San Francisco 49ers signed British discus thrower and one-time rugby player Lawrence Okoye to a 3-year contract as an undrafted free agent. Okoye came in with no experience playing American football. The closest he came to that was the fact that his dad played some football at Nebraska back in the 1980s.
Once Okoye decided he wanted to play football, he took part in the Super Regional Combine, and then proceeded to sign with the 49ers after the draft. Part of the reason he chose the 49ers was the presence of defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. While Tomsula is notable in his ability to develop talent, he also spent a lot of time coaching in NFL Europe. He dealt with a lot of players that had little to no American football experience, which was a perfect situation for Okoye.
Once Okoye signed, last offseason was entirely about just learning the very basic fundamentals that American players take for granted. It started with him just learning how to put on his pads, and moved on to the basics of defensive line work. The 6'5, 304 pound monster of a man is an incredible athletic specimen, but he still had to learn the basics of the game.
Okoye got some preseason action, playing six defensive snaps and one special teams snap vs. the Broncos (quick analysis), four defensive snaps vs. the Chiefs (quick analysis), and eight defensive snaps against the Vikings. In that last game, Okoye injured his knee, and was waived/injured two days later. He cleared waivers and spent the season on injured reserve. The general belief was that it was not too serious, but it afforded the 49ers the opportunity to retain him without taking up a spot on the 53-man roster or the practice squad.
What to expect in 2014:
Okoye gets a full offseason to work with Jim Tomsula, following spending the entire year with the team while on injured reserve. There were limitations to what kind of work he could do while on injured reserve, but there was still plenty of value to be had in just being around the team and hearing what the coaches have to say.
As we move into 2014, expectations increase, but only because there were virtually no expectations last year. He now knows how to put on his pads and uniform. He knows the basics of getting down into a 3-point stance. He knows how football works. He still has plenty to learn about fundamentals, but there was nowhere to go but up after last season. That being said, it's hard to know how much to expect in 2014. My expectations are pretty low, with the practice squad being the realistic best case scenario in my mind. He's smart and shown an ability to learn new things very quickly (see how quickly he became an Olympic discus thrower). Maybe he takes a huge leap with the help of Jim Tomsula. I wouldn't set your expectations too high, but anything is possible.
Odds of making the roster:
I would have to say pretty slim. He could surprise us, but if he stays healthy, my expectation this year is practice squad. The 49ers are already fairly deep along the defensive line with Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial getting more into the mix. Okoye has shown he could be a standout special teams option, and that has me wondering about how that could impact his roster chances. Last week in OTAs, he ran down defensive back Darryl Morris along the sideline in a kick return drill. Morris ran a 4.33 40 coming out of college, while Okoye is 304 pounds.
We already knew Okoye was a great athlete, but this goes to show how ridiculous that athleticism can be. Could it be enough to secure a special teams specific roster spot? If Okoye flashes in special teams, but the 49ers decide they want him to spend a year on the practice squad, they would need to waive him before signing him to the practice squad. If he flashed enough on special teams, do we potentially see another team try and claim him? It is way too early to know any of this for certain, but given how quickly Okoye has adapted to other sports, I don't think it's necessarily out of the realm of the possible given how important athleticism can be for straight special teams work.