The limiting factor for most linebacker prospects in the modern NFL is their ability to hold up in coverage – in an ideal situation, teams want linebackers who can play man-to-man with tight ends and running backs. While Okereke does show the speed to run vertically with tight ends:
He struggles for lateral agility in space, which made it hard for him to adjust to cuts:
Given this, teams would probably be best advised not to use him in man coverage, but can he offer some value in zone?
The short answer is yes, as he does show some ability as a run-and-hit zone defender, using his speed to get downhill and limit yards after the catch:
Here, he shows decent movement skills in space and solid awareness for where receivers are, as he also does here:
However, there were also some times where he looked somewhat lost in zone:
This is really something that can only be fully probed with player interviews, but as long as he shows the movement skills needed to play in this way, NFL teams will be willing to put in the time to work out whether he can handle the mental side of the game. A simple example of how this can go wrong can be seen by comparing the next two plays. On the first, the defenders communicate effectively, they get pressure on the quarterback and Okereke is able to make the tackle for no gain:
Whereas here, there is a miscommunication between Okereke and the rush defender, and both end up pressuring, leaving nobody to take the flat receiver for an easy completion:
It will be important for any team looking at Okereke to establish who the responsibility for this lies with. As a coverage player, Okereke is clearly not without his flaws, but if a team isn’t going to ask him to play man and are content about his mental aptitude, then he has the athletic ability at least to be a solid zone defender – not to mention he’ll likely play a lot of special teams and be able to get better through NFL practices early in his career.
Of course, there is another way linebackers can impact the pass game – as pass rushers. This is something that Okereke did well at Stanford, and while this isn’t something that he is going to be asked to do every passing snap, when a linebacker is being able to be disruptive like this:
That is always going to be a positive. Okereke also showed the ability to add some pass rush as a spy defender:
This isn’t something that is going to be the core of his game, but by being able to offer something extra, he is able to add value as a depth player, potentially giving him a path to seeing the field in certain situations. Okereke probably isn’t going to be a great starting linebacker, but that isn’t where his value lies. Instead, his value is in his ability to come in Week 1 and offer quality depth with the potential to develop into a borderline starter with time. Therefore, if the Panthers do look to add a late round linebacker as a replacement for Mayo as a #2 MLB, then Okereke might make some sense.
Grade: High Fifth Round
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