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Bobby Okereke can fix key problems in New York Giants’ defense

Okereke was given nice money to be a force in the middle

Tennessee Titans v Indianapolis Colts
Bobby Okereke
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

In the 2023 free agency period, off-ball linebackers were generally paid less than expected. One of the exceptions was Bobby Okereke, who received a sizable deal from the New York Giants in their bid to improve their defense. Will Okereke be the impact player the Giants think they are getting?

By the numbers

Height: 6-foot-1
Weight: 235
Age: 26
Position: Inside linebacker
Experience: 4
Contract: Four years, $40 million | Guaranteed at signing: $21.8 million | 2023 cap hit: $5 million

Career to date

Okereke (pronounced oh-KEH-ruh-kay) was selected by the Colts out of Stanford with the 89th pick in the 2019 draft. In his rookie season, he appeared in 16 games (eight starts) as a rookie, seeing time at both middle and weak side linebacker. He posted 65 total tackles (48 solo), two for loss, two pass breakups, one sack and quarterback hit, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. Okereke posted a 78.4 Pro Football Focus grade that year, including an 81.2 grade on 219 coverage snaps.

In his second season, Okereke played in 14 games (eight starts). He had 72 tackles (57 solo), four for loss, six pass breakups, one quarterback hit, one interception, and two fumble recoveries. However, his PFF grade tumbled all the way to 49.6, and his coverage grade fell to 54.7 after he allowed 54 of 66 catches (81.8%) for 563 yards, three touchdowns, and a 111.0 quarterback rating.

In 2021, Okereke’s PFF grade wasn’t much better at 58.5, and his coverage grade was 59.4. In 17 starts, he had 132 tackles (89 solo), three for loss, four pass breakups, two quarterback hits, and two interceptions. In coverage, he allowed 64 of 79 catches (81%) for 523 yards and four touchdowns for a 100.6 rating.

Last season, Okereke’s PFF grade rebounded to 73.3, primarily on the strength of a 79.4 run defense grade and 67.4 coverage grade. In 17 games (16 starts), he had 151 tackles (99 solo), six for loss, five pass breakups, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. He allowed 73 of 93 catches (78.5%) for 651 yards and two touchdowns for a 103.0 quarterback rating. His 7.7% run stop rate was in the 65th percentile among 65 starting linebackers (min. 200 run defense snaps).

Okereke signed a four-year, $40 million deal with the Giants in the offseason.

2023 outlook

Okereke will be the Giants’ starting inside linebacker who will most likely play all three downs. He played 970 total defensive snaps last season, 23rd-most among linebackers, and there’s no reason to expect anything different for a well-paid free agent.

In his time with the Colts, Okereke allowed a fair amount of receiving yardage, but he was still above average among linebackers in yards per target allowed in three of his four seasons. The lone outlier was his second year, and he has ranked in the 75th and 67th percentile in that category, respectively, over the last two seasons. That would suggest he is prone to giving up completions but usually manages to limit the damage. While Giants fans should not expect a Fred Warner-type in coverage, Okereke has shown the capability to be an average-to-above-average cover linebacker.

Okereke ranked 14th among linebackers with a 79.3 PFF run defense grade in 2022, but his grade was just 51.6 the year prior and 44.1 the year before that. The Giants are counting on him to be a difference-maker in the run game; the question is if he will be able to live up to that. It might just be the most important factor in whether the team’s run defense will improve.

As a tackler, Okereke has posted a 10.8% miss rate in each of the last two seasons. In 2021, it was roughly average for starting linebackers (11%), but it was worse than average in 2022 (9.94%). He’s a reasonably reliable tackler but not a great one.

Okereke was not a particularly productive pass rusher with the Colts, but he was also rarely asked to do so. He had just 24 pass rushes in 2022 and 134 through four seasons in Indianapolis. By contrast, Micah McFadden blitzed on roughly 10% of his snaps last year, and Jarrad Davis was at 16%. Even Jaylon Smith blitzed 7% of the time compared to Okereke’s 2.5%. Wink Martindale will likely increase Okereke’s blitz count simply because of the style of defense the Giants play.

One way or another, Okereke represents an upgrade over McFadden and Smith at the position. The pair posted PFF coverage grades of 30.0 and 44.9, respectively, in 2022. Their run defense grades were 51.4 and 62.7. If Okereke can maintain his production from 2022, the Giants will have gotten a significant upgrade at the position in multiple ways.