Detroit Lions 2021 second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike has seen his career derailed by injuries. Is 2023 his last chance to make it in the NFL?
For all of Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes’ hits through two drafts, one stands out as a pretty significant miss. Defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike, the team’s second-round pick in the 2021 NFL Drafthas played in only 16 games since being drafted and most of those games were severely hampered by a back injury.
That injury has plagued Onwuzuruike ever since he landed in Detroit, and many believe it could threaten his entire football career. That said, he’s still only 25 years old and when we last saw Onwuzurike, it looked like he was on a serious path to returning to play.
So will we see Onwuzurike in 2023? Is this his last chance to make it before the Lions move on? Let’s take a closer look at our 2023 list sample series.
Previous List Previews: Aidan Hutchinson, Jameson Williams, Josh Paschal, Kerby Joseph, James Mitchell, Malcolm Rodriguez, James Houston, Chase Lucas, Obinna king, Greg Bell, and Penei Sewell
Expectations heading into 2022
In his rookie season, Onwuzurike played in 16 games, but his back injury was a constant nuisance. Before the season even began, the Lions sent him to a back specialist, and while Onwuzurike played down the concerns at the time, this injury was a big reason why his 2021 season was mostly forgettable. Former Lions defensive line coach Todd Wash said there were times during the season when Onwuzurike couldn’t even sit comfortably in his chair.
By 2022, there was optimism that Onwuzurike had put the injury behind him. The Lions’ training staff put together an intensive program for him to get better, and they entered training camp feeling comfortable. Onwuzurike was at full health, “jacketed” and ready to make the coveted Year 2 jump.
“The change of philosophy up front, I think we’re going to see the power and explosiveness that we see in him,” Wash said. “He’s been here every day and he looks stiff. I’m kind of excited about that one.”
Actual role in 2022
Did not play
Unfortunately, the optimism about Onwuzurike’s health did not last long. A week into training camp, Onwuzurike left practice and did not return. At first, the Lions downplayed the injury and hoped to get him back before the season started. Then coach Dan Campbell said he didn’t expect Onwuzurike to play in the season opener. Onwuzurike didn’t start the season on injured reserve, giving hope that he would play early, but that optimism didn’t last long.
In October came the worst news. The back surgery that the Lions and Onwuzuruike had been trying to put off was no longer unavoidable, and the defensive tackle’s sophomore season was over before it began.
“It’s a last resort, but we felt that’s where he needed to go with it,” Campbell said. “Seen a number of doctors and we’ll see where it goes.”
Outlook for 2023
It’s hard to know what to expect from Onwuzurike going forward. At the time of the surgery, the hope was that when he fully recovered, the injury would be fully behind him. However, the rehabilitation process is obviously still underway.
During OTAs and minicamp, Onwuzurike was seen on the field occasionally going through drills without a helmet and working with a trainer. But it was also clear that he was not that close to being a true participant in practice. Campbell said the hope is to get him on the field at some point in training camp.
“We’re certainly hoping to get him in camp at some point, but I can’t give you a timeline for that right now,” Campbell said.
The vague timeline puts the lions in a bit of a bind. If the Lions decide to forego placing Onwuzurike on Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) or delist him mid-camp, he will have little time to justify a spot on the 53-man roster. Remember, this is a guy who has barely even practiced football in over a year and hasn’t played healthy football for over two years. That doesn’t exactly put him in a position to succeed. It’s entirely possible they would have to cut him given how talented the roster is these days.
That said, if the Lions decide to keep Onwuzurike on the PUP list for all of training camp and into the season, it would be the third straight year he has missed most or all of training camp. However, Onwuzurike wanted time to fully rehab and would not count against the 53-man roster until he was completely ready to go.
It’s certainly the more cautious route to take for Onwuzurike, but it would mean missing more valuable reps and at least four games into the regular season. And if the Lions go this route, it will take at least a few weeks after being removed from the PUP for Onwuzurike to be ready for actual playing time. In other words, this route could cost him at least half the season.
Neither scenario is particularly good for Onwuzurike, but it underscores how dire his situation has become. The best possible scenario for him is that he returns to training camp and hits the ground running. But at this point, it also feels like the least likely outcome.
Onwuzurike has a huge hill to climb to regain his dreams of being an impact NFL player, and it’s fair to say that if it doesn’t happen sometime in 2023, it might never happen here in Detroit.