Levi Onwuzurike

Lions Aiming To Have DL Levi Onwuzurike Healthy By Training Camp

The Lions have made a number of moves on the defensive side of the ball this offseason, but they could receive a boost if Levi Onwuzurike were able to return to the field. The defensive tackle is rehabbing a back injury which cost him the entire 2022 season.

The 25-year-old entered the league with health concerns related to his back dating to his college career. He was nevertheless able to suit up for 16 games as a rookie, totaling 35 tackles and one sack along the way. Expectations were relatively high for the former second-rounder entering heading into 2023, but an aggravation of his existing issue in the summer forced him onto IR.

Unable to rehab the injury to the point where he would be able to play again that year, Onwuzurike underwent surgery in October. That procedure was aimed at giving him the best chance of recovering and extending his career in the long term, but doubts understandably persist with respect to his playing future. When head coach Dan Campbell spoke about the situation in April, he left it up in the air whether Onwuzurike would be able to continue his time in the NFL. His most recent remarks paint a more optimistic picture, though.

“I would say he’s probably about right on schedule for what we thought,” Campbell said, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press“He just got on the grass, really about a week ago, to where he can begin to run… how fast can his body come back? We don’t entirely have that answer.”

Campbell left the door open to Onwuzurike having a notable role if he were able to return to full health in 2023. The Lions did little to address their defensive front during free agency, releasing veteran Michael Brockers while retaining a number of less expensive in-house options. They spent one of their two third-round picks in this year’s draft on Brodric Martin, who will look to earn a role during training camp in July. That is also roughly the point at which Detroit is aiming to have Onwuzurike back in the fold.

“Certainly, we’re hoping that we get him in camp at some point,” Campbell added. “But I can’t give you a timeline of that right now.”

Lions DL Levi Onwuzurike Facing Uncertain Future

The Lions took a risk when they drafted Levi Onwuzurike in 2021. The back issues the defensive lineman faced in college have remained at the NFL level, and they have put his playing future at risk.

Onwuzurike entered the league with plenty of promise and expectations as a second-round pick. He was able to play 16 games as a rookie, despite missed time in the summer due to chronic back ailments. The Washington product showed potential in a rotational role, totaling 35 tackles while adding one sack and two tackles for loss.

That could have provided a stepping stone to a larger workload in 2022, but Onwuzurike re-aggravated his existing issue during the first practice of the summer, resulting in an IR stint. By October, it had become clear that suiting up this season would not have been possible. As a result, he underwent surgery aimed at giving him the best chance possible of continuing his career in 2023 and beyond. When providing an update on his status, head coach Dan Campbell was unable to definitively point to a return at any time in the future.

“We just need to see how it is,” he said, via Kyle Meinke of mlive.com (subscription required). “We talked to him a couple of weeks ago, he was doing good. The rehab has gone well, but you just don’t know. You don’t know with a back. But I mean certainly, he’s going to get an opportunity if the body will allow it.”

Indeed, a path to significant playing time certainly exists for Onwuzurike. The 25-year-old has little in the way of veterans ahead of him on the depth chart, especially since Detroit moved on from Michael Brockers earlier this offseason. The team’s other moves along the defensive interior have included re-signing Isaiah Buggs, Benito Jones and John Cominsky. An outside addition late in free agency and/or a notable investment in the draft would come as little surprise given the Lions’ situation at the position. Particularly if Onwuzurike isn’t able to practice and play on a consistent basis, such action may become necessary.

Lions DL Levi Onwuzurike Undewent Season-Ending Surgery

Levi Onwuzurike has continued to be plagued by back issues, and they will keep him off the field in 2022. The defensive lineman underwent season-ending surgery during the Lions’ bye week, as detailed by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.

The 2021 second-rounder had similar troubles coming out of college, though the Lions were aware of them. He missed most of training camp in his rookie season, but was able to suit up for 16 games. Playing a rotational role, he registered 35 tackles and one sack, potentially setting him up for a step forward in Year 2.

Instead, Onwuzurike suffered a setback during the team’s first padded practice this summer, which landed him on IR at the start of the season. The Washington alum did not see the field at all following the August 1 reaggravation of his back disc issues, which left his 2022 availability in serious doubt to begin with.

“I mean it’s a last resort,” head coach Dan Campbell said of the decision to have the 24-year-old go under the knife. “Felt like that was – he felt like that’s where he needed to go with it and saw a number of doctors and so we’ll see where it goes.” 

With Onwuzurike officially shelved for the season, the Lions’ underwhelming defensive front will carry on with Michael Brockers and Alim McNeill as starters along the interior, with Isaiah Buggs and Demetrius Taylor operating as rotational options. The Lions are also awaiting the return of edge rushers Romeo Okwara and Josh Paschal, which are likely to come at different points this season.

Lions Place DL Levi Onwuzurike On IR

Detroit will be without its second-year defensive lineman for at least four games after placing Levi Onwuzurike on injured reserve today, according to a tweet from the team’s Twitter account. Onwuzurike gave the Lions versatility on the defensive line last year, taking snaps at end and on the interior. 

Onwuzurike was drafted in the second-round last year despite back troubles that plagued him in college. The back issues have persisted through his rookie season to now. They caused him to miss Detroit’s entire rookie training camp, causing him to seek outside opinions before returning to the team.

The former Washington Huskies lineman was able to appear in 16 games last year as a rookie, but failed to make a lasting impression. Onwuzurike did record 35 total tackles, but was only able to manage 2.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, one quarterback hit, and two passes defensed, numbers the Lions hoped he would be able to improve on in his sophomore season.

Onwuzurike added strength in the offseason and showed up for camp ready to roll into Year 2. Unfortunately, he was unable to make it through a single padded practice before yet another back ailment sidelined the 24-year-old. He hasn’t been able to practice since.

Detroit hoped it would be able to keep Onwuzurike off of injured reserve so that he could still attend practice. Some on the staff credited his rookie struggles with the amount of time he was forced to be away from the team leading up to the season. If he stayed off IR, he’d be able to practice on days when medical staff cleared him to do so. Instead, he’ll be handcuffed by the restrictions of the IR.

He joins Romeo Okwara and rookie Josh Paschal as defensive linemen that are too injured to play in the season opener. The Lions will start Alim McNeill and Michael Brockers in the middle and Charles Harris and rookie first-round pick Aidan Hutchinson at the end spots. Without Onwuzurike, Okwara, and Paschal, the starters will be relieved by Austin Bryant, Isaiah Buggs, John Cominsky, Julian Okwara, Benito Jones, and undrafted rookie Demetrius Taylor.

Lions Sign Levi Onwuzurike

The Lions have another draft pick in the fold. On Thursday, they formally signed second-round defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike.

Onwuzurike, a Washington product, opted out of the 2020 season and spent the year preparing for the 2021 NFL Draft. The 6-foot-3, 288-pound lineman earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2019, and finished his Huskies career with 95 tackles and seven sacks.

The 6’3″, 293-pound lineman played defensive tackle with the Huskies. However, he’ll be slotted in as a defensive end that moves inside on clear passing downs, according to defensive line coach Todd Wash. As the No. 41 overall pick, Onwuzurike will earn $8.14MM across four years, including a signing bonus of $3.2MM.

With Onwuzurike signed, the Lions have just a couple of draft picks to go. Here’s the full rundown of their 2021 draft class:

Round 1: No. 7 Penei Sewell, OT (Oregon) (signed)
Round 2: No. 41 Levi Onwuzurike, DT (Washington) (signed)
Round 3: No. 72 Alim McNeill, DT (North Carolina State) (signed)
Round 3: No. 101 (from Rams) Ifeatu Melifonwu, CB (Syracuse)
Round 4: No. 112 Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR (USC)
Round 4: No. 113 (from Panthers through Browns) Derrick Barnes, LB (Purdue)
Round 7: No. 257 Jermar Jefferson, RB (Oregon State) (signed)

Lions Notes: Okwara, Onwuzurike, Tavai

The Lions have a new regime in place, led by head coach Dan Campbell. Often times, coaching changes put incumbent players on the chopping block, but that’s not necessarily the case for 2019 second-round pick Jahlani Tavai.

I tell you what, I’ve been really impressed with Jahlani,” linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said (via Justin Rogers of The Detroit News). “He’s been here (and) he’s been doing a great job. He’s in really good shape right now. I’m excited to work with him. I’m excited for us to get to OTAs and be able to continue with him because I’m really excited about him.”

I can just tell you when he came out when he was out on the field this week, he’s been doing well and I’ve really enjoyed working with him so far. He has a really good understanding of the game. I think he’s gonna be a nice piece for us to work within this scheme.”

The Lions are exploring their options at LB, including newcomer Alex Anzalone, who has history with Campbell. Tavai, meanwhile, has failed to impress in his two pro seasons. After notching two tackles, one forced fumble, and one interception as a rookie, Tavai didn’t make much of an impact last year. He appeared in all 16 games and made ten starts, but earned poor marks from Pro Football Focus across the board, including a dismal 35.7 score for his coverage. Still, the Lions seem to think that this can be a turning point for the young ‘backer.

More from Detroit:

  • The Lions’ new scheme will push Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara to outside linebacker, as Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press writes.”He’s got a great skill set for what we’re trying to do,” defensive line coach Todd Wash said of Flowers, who inked a $90MM deal to play DE. “Every one of the players that we have on our defensive roster have a skill set. It’s going to be our job obviously as coaches to put them in that position to be successful, and I think Trey has that skill set as a defensive end in base and also in sub.” Flowers won’t be alone — there will be adjustments across the front seven as Detroit commits to a base 3-4 set under Campbell.
  • New second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike will be slotted in as a defensive end that moves inside on clear passing downs, defensive line coach Todd Wash says (Twitter link via Rogers).
  • Before the Lions signed Dan Campbell, they also explored Iowa State coach Matt Campbell as a candidate. But, despite a report to the contrary, it sounds like they never made a formal offer.

College Notes: Sanders, Onwuzurike, Mayfield

Deion Sanders has received his wish. After pushing for a head coaching job earlier this year, the Hall of Famer has been hired by Jackson State. Rashad Milligan of the Mississippi Clarion Ledger reports (via Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com) that Sanders will be the next head coach of the Tigers.

Prime Time won a pair of Super Bowls, earned eight Pro Bowl appearances, and garnered six first-team All-Pro nods during his illustrious NFL career. However, as Florio notes, the 53-year-old hasn’t even served as an assistant coach (much less head coach) at the college or professional level. Sanders is currently coaching his son, quarterback Shedeur Sanders, at Trinity Christian in Cedar Hill, Texas.

Jackson State fired John Hendrick back in August, with T.C. Taylor and Otis Riddley taking over interim head coaching duties. The school is sitting out the fall 2020 season, but they’re expected to participate in a spring league that begins in February.

More notes out of the college ranks:

  • Washington defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike has opted out of the 2020 season and will declare for the 2021 NFL Draft. The 6-foot-3, 288-pound lineman earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors last season, and he’ll finish his Huskies career having compiled 95 tackles and seven sacks. Onwuzurike will likely be a top-five defensive tackle in the 2021 draft, and he’s currently projected to be a second-day selection.
  • Last month, it sounded like Michigan offensive lineman Jalen Mayfield was going to sit out the 2020 season and prepare for the draft. However, Angelique S. Chengelis of The Detroit News reports that Mayfield will actually return to the Wolverines this season. Mayfield was projected to be a first-round pick in next year’s draft.
  • MSU has confirmed that defensive end Jacub Panasiuk has reversed course and will play this season (via Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News on Twitter). The six-foot-three, 245-pound lineman initially opted out of the season last month. In 38 games at MSU, Panasiuk has compiled 80 tackles and eight sacks. Thanks to the decision, Panasiuk could improve his current third-day draft stock.