As he has throughout the offseason, Jim Harbaugh last week discussed how the defensive line was a 49ers' strength in 2014. Then he ticked off the players who lined up there this spring.
“Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial, Kaleb Ramsey, Demarcus Dobbs, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Mike Purcell, not to mention Glenn Dorsey, Ray McDonald and Justin Smith,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a real stout unit for us.”
Left out, of course, was the guy who has captured the fans' imagination – Lawrence Okoye. I have a hard time believing that Harbaugh simply forgot to mention Okoye, especially since he had been regularly asked about the former discus thrower since OTAs began in May.
Instead – and this is purely my take – I think Harbaugh left him out to tamp down expectations about the great Brit. Last year at the same time, Harbaugh also grew weary of questions about Okoye, who at that point had never played a single game of American football in his life. “I think that’s probably enough ground covered there on Lawrence,” Harbaugh said at the time, ending the line of questions.
Okoye hasn't had much seasoning since last year. He played a mere handful of snaps at the very end of last year's preseason games, then injured his knee in the third preseason game and was placed on IR for the year. He was able to attend meetings and watch practices. Prior to the game in London it was clear that his mental sharpness was as impressive as his physique (6-6, 305 pounds) and athleticism (weight-room champ; fastest lineman on the team).
But Okoye still hasn't played very much football, and it's getting into games and dueling with guards and tackles that will accelerate his learning curve. That's where the 49ers' d-line depth will be a hindrance. With so many other players ahead of him on the depth chart, it's hard to see him taking many preseason snaps this year as well.
The 49ers may be eying him for the practice squad, which would involve them cutting him at some point, exposing him to waivers, and then re-signing him to the practice squad. Perhaps that's why Harbaugh didn't seem eager to sing his praises.
Neither did defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
“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,” Fangio said. “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.”
Last year, Okoye pointed to Cardinals defensive lineman Calais Campbell, who stands 6-8, as someone who has flourished despite his length. Of course, there are plenty of others, from three-time Pro Bowler Ed “Too Tall” Jones, who played at 6-9, to Okoye's own teammate, Jerod-Eddie, who is 6-5.
The best comparison? It may be another ex-Cardinals lineman, Eric Swann, who never played college football but who lasted 10 years in the NFL and made two Pro Bowls. Swann certainly had more football background than Okoye – he was earning $5 an hour in a semi-pro league when he was drafted by Arizona – but there are similarities. Swann is 6-5 and in high school was a shotput and discus thrower.
The bottom line? Okoye is a physical marvel. But he promises to have only scant opportunities to show his skills, and it seems as if another 'learning year' awaits him.
* Shoe-ins: Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Glenn Dorsey, Tank Carradine
* Looking good: Quinton Dial, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Ian Williams (PUP?)
* Fighting for a spot: Demarcus Dobbs, Lawrence Okoye, Mike Purcell, Kaleb Ramsey*