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NFL Draft: How did 32 teams miss on Giants’ DE Romeo Okwara?

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A look back at why he went undrafted

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys
Romeo Okwara
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL draft is an inexact science. Sometimes highly-drafted “can’t miss” players do exactly that, while late-round picks or undrafted players experience unexpected success. Romeo Okwara, the defensive end who starred for the New York Giants on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys while filling in for the injured Jason Pierre-Paul, is just the latest example.

In 60 defensive snaps on Sunday, Okwara registered his first career sack, a team-high eight tackles, two hits on quarterback Dak Prescott, a hurry and a pass defensed.

“We anticipated splitting the reps up a little more than we did. With the way he was playing, he was hot. We wanted to let him roll in there,” head coach Ben McAdoo said Monday during a conference call.

Okwara signed with the Giants after the 2016 NFL Draft as a priority free agent. With edge pass rushers always at a premium, how did 32 NFL teams — the Giants included — fail to consider Okwara draft-worthy?

“I was very surprised when Okwara went undrafted,” Scott Wright of Draft Countdown told me. “I had a mid-fifth round grade on him in my final rankings. Average college production but he was super young for his class and probably should have red-shirted his first year. My argument before the draft was that it’s rare to find a pass rusher with his frame and upside available on Day 3. Really nice pickup for the Giants.”

Let’s not count on seeing Okwara play as well all the time as he did Sunday against the Cowboys. It was one game. An encouraging one, but one game. Still, even before Sunday it was obvious that Okwara had moved past Kerry Wynn and 2015 third-round pick Owamagbe Odighizuwa on the Giants’ depth chart.

Okwara is still only 21. What seems to have happened is that NFL teams misjudged not only his athleticism, but after a position switch from linebacker to defensive end at Notre Dame how long it would take him to develop as an NFL player.

Here is part of a pre-draft report from Greg Gabriel of the National Football Post, a long-time NFL scout:

“It’s too bad this player wasn’t redshirted as a true freshman. He has really come on the second half of this season but still isn’t quite there. Right now he is best as a pass rusher but he still needs to get stronger and develop some more moves. He is not a consistent run down player and that is more because he lacks top size and power. Because of his athleticism, many of the 3-4 teams will work him out as an outside linebacker. If he proves he can drop into coverage he may have a future in that type scheme. In a 4-3, he will need a year on the practice squad to develop his skills and get bigger and stronger. There is no question he has talent but he is still raw. This player has upside in the right situation.”

Lance Zierlein of NFL.com was not enthusiastic about Okwara’s chances of even making a team:

Big edge player who looks great on the hoof, but who is extremely stiff and mechanical in his movements. Okwara is missing the quickness to be an NFL pass rusher while being a block magnet in the running game. Unless he finds a way to unleash his natural power and have it translate to production on the field, making a roster will be exceptionally difficult.

Dane Brugler of CBS Sports had Okwara rated as a priority free agent in his 2016 Draft Guide. Here is what Brugler wrote about Okwara at the time:

“A two-year starter, Okwara put his hand on the ground at defensive end in 2014 and slowly started to put things together with improved production as a senior. He started attending school at the age of three, graduated high school at 16 years old and will be only 20 years old on draft weekend. Okwara is more smooth than twitchy and has the body type and character that suggests he has untapped potential. However his current skill-set lacks sophistication as he is a liability vs. the run and lacks any creativity as a pass rusher to scare offensive tackles. Okwara requires extended time, but could potentially help in a rotation by year three in the NFL – long-term project pushes his draft value to the late rounds or free agency.”

What does Brugler think of what Okwara has done as a rookie?

“I wouldn't say excited, but definitely encouraged with Okwara. Whenever an undrafted rookie makes a contribution and outplays draft picks in year one, that is obviously a step in the right direction to securing a roster spot long-term,” Brugler said. “Okwara was so green at Notre Dame, but the raw traits were intriguing. I used the words "untapped potential" in my report, but didn't think he would make much of an impact in year one, especially considering he doesn't turn 22 years old until next summer. He's still finding his way, but it's clear how well he takes to coaching and applies it on the field.”