One player who remains a frequent topic of discussion (or at least mention in the comments!) is defensive tackle Lawrence Okoye. Last preseason was the first time Okoye played in an NFL contest, capping off a whirlwind few months in which he had his first formal instruction in how to actually play football.
Okoye is an absolute specimen, standing 6'5, 300 pounds, with the ability to run a 4.7 40-yard dash. It remains to be seen if that will fully convert to football, but given his ability to learn rugby and the discus, it's reasonable to at least be hopeful. Okoye was given a limited amount of snaps last preseason, and his lack of experience showed. He said he was hoping to simply become a bad football player, and I'd say he was making progress toward that designation before a knee injury ended his season.
Okoye is now healthy and competing at defensive tackle and on special teams. One of the frequently mentioned storylines early in OTAs was seeing Okoye run down on special teams and get to guys smaller and faster than him. He ran down Darryl Morris, who might be the fastest guy on the team. It's not surprising that kind of story will pique the interest of fans.
Okoye continues to work with Jim Tomsula to learn how to be an NFL defensive lineman, but it seems like his natural athleticism will translate quite well on special teams. Special teams requires discipline, athleticism, and some measure of strength. These are not easy skills to come across, but I have to think the learning curve is flatter for special teams work.
Last week at minicamp, head coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio were both asked about Okoye's develoment. On Tuesday, Harbaugh was asked whether Okoye could make the team as a special teams ace.
Usually, when you think about special teams specialists, coverage specialists, you think about safeties and linebackers. Does DL Lawrence Okoye have a chance to make the team as a special teams ace, like a S C.J. Spillman would or like a LB Blake Costanzo would? Is he in that mix of guys?
“He’s got to make it as a position player and that’s what he’s trying to get done. He’s doing a goob job. We talked about it last week. We have been really pleased with all of our defensive lineman doing everything that we ask. And there is great competition there, there’s great talent there and there’s been great effort there throughout the offseason. And we want that to continue into the preseason and in those games, and the competition will rage. It’s a position of strength for us.”
Given some of the limits of the 53-man roster, and more specifically, the game-day 46-man roster, versatility is important in the NFL. There are some special teams aces, but you can only have so many of those players. Blake Costanzo or Kassim Osgood have built their careers almost entirely around special teams. C.J. Spillman has become a special teams ace, but he also can still contribute as an extra safety.
Vic Fangio was asked more specifically about Okoye's development as a defensive lineman.
How’s DL Lawrence Okoye look?
“He looks a lot better than he did last year at this time. But, we’ll see. We’ll see. He’ll get more action this year hopefully. Hopefully it’s easier for us to put him into some preseason games, give him some more practice reps and actually see where he’s at.”
Where does he look better, in what phase of the game?
“Just understanding the game, keeping his pads down. There aren’t many guys, if you guys did any research, there aren’t many 6’5” or taller guys that are good defensive players. There’s some. But, there’s not a lot. They’ve got to be able to bend their knees and play low, and use their height to their advantage when they can. But, they’ve got to bend their knees and get them down to 6’2” when they need to. So, he’s going to have to play the game lower and use his natural ability that he does have. He’s an extremely strong guy. He can run. But, we’ll see how he pans out.”
The 49ers have a lot of options along the defensive line. After Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, they have Tank Carradine, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Demarcus Dobbs, Quinton Dial, Kaleb Ramsey, and to some extent, Glenn Dorsey depending on how the nose tackle situation plays out. That's a lot of guys for a limited number of roster spots.
If Okoye is still a ways off as a defensive lineman, it will come down to what he can do as a special teams player. And that's where it gets interesting come the end of August. If he stands out on special teams, what's to stop another team from claiming him off waivers to fill in as a special teams ace? The 49ers have one of the deepest rosters in the NFL. There are a lot of teams that do not have quite the numbers crunch, and might be willing to add a defensive line project that looks a lot closer to being ready as a special teams option. Matt Maiocco mentioned the point that some team could see him rumble down on kickoffs and punts and think maybe he's worth snagging off waivers (the 49ers would have to waive him to sign him to the practice squad).
At the same time, I do wonder how much we might overrate him in the eyes of other teams. Each team is bound to overrate some of their own players further down the depth chart. But I come back to that size and athleticism. If the 49ers get him out there on special teams, it is very possible another team will be plenty impressed. That also might mean the 49ers try and hide him, as Maiocco suggested. By that, I mean give him time at defensive tackle to see how he's coming along, but do not use him on special teams. Other teams are going to read about how he performed in practice at special teams, but there's something about actually seeing that speed up close that could make a difference in whether or not a team tries to claim him.
How do you see things playing out this fall when the team makes final roster cuts?