As we transition to the offseason with only OTAs and mandatory minicamp in the way of effectively a dead period with little happening in the NFL, I have taken some film room requests on certain players and aspects yinz wanted highlighted about their play from last season. For this film room breakdown, I will hold OT Chukwuma Okorafor under the microscope and actually defend the projected starting RT who has received his fair share of criticism (from myself, included) and support the decision to re-sign him during this offseason.
The memo on Chuks Okorafor heading into now his fifth season in the league after being drafted in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft is that he is a more accomplished pass protector that run blocker. If you go through the tape, you will find that statement to be pretty accurate as Chuks seems to struggle with consistency and playing with a mean streak in the run game. He will put a body on a defender and stalemate him, but hardly ever blows anyone off the ball and often plays too upright along with mistiming his punch, leading to whiffed blocks.
When you watch Chuks in pass protection, you also will see some of those same inconsistencies in terms of syncing up his hands and feet together as well as playing too high and upright at times, leading to a poor base and ability to drop anchor against the rush. We see an example of the former here against the Raiders as Chuks is in position to pick up the stunt, but drops his head and shoots his hands on #96 Clelin Farrell, allowing the edge rusher to cross his face and put a hit on Ben Roethlisberger as he releases the ball, resulting in an INT.
Here’s an example of the latter as Chuks tries to keep #98 Maxx Crosby from getting to the QB, missing his punch while playing high as Crosby gets the long arm into Chuks’ chest, bulldozing him to the ground as he wraps up Ben in the pocket, but luckily, Ben can find #22 Najee Harris for the dump off to salvage the play.
Still, while Chuks isn’t the best pass protector, he’s honestly a lot better than fans and NFL personalities alike give him credit for. I have routinely ripped Chuks in the past, but after watching more full games of him in pass protection, I came away impressed. For example, Chuks has held his own three times now against the Denver Broncos former stud pass rusher Von Miller, playing well in the matchup back to his rookie year. Here in this clip, Chuks quickly recognizes the twist and picks up the interior defender coming around the edge, keeping Ben clean long enough to locate his target over the middle.
In fact, Okorafor represented himself well against some of the best pass rushers this season, keeping the pressures at a minimum while only officially surrendering two sacks on the season, which includes the postseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Here are two plays against Crosby where Chuks more than holds his own, keeping the pocket clean while utilizing his long arms and athletic movement skills to his advantage to mirror the pass rusher.
As mentioned above, Chuks had an impressive season from a statical standpoint as far as pass protection is concerned. According to Pro Football Focus, Okorafor played 671 pass blocking snaps on the season (including playoffs) and surrendered 14 hurries, seven QB hits, and two QB sacks. This results in 23 total pressures given up on the season, equating to a 3.4% pressure rate. For context, that is one less sack (3), two more QB hits (7), and seven less hurries (21) than in 2020 where Okorafor registered a 4.1% pressure percentage.
How do these pressure percentages compare to some of the NFL’s best pass protectors? Quite well, actually. According to PFFs recent OT rankings and tiers study posted on their site, Green Bay OT David Bakhtiari leads the way with a 3.5% pressure rate from 2016-2020. Behind him are Terron Armstead of the Saints at 3.6%, Taylor Moton of the Panthers at 3.9%, and Andrew Whitworth and Ryan Ramczyk tied a 4.0%. Okorafor’s 2021 season would slot in at first place on this list, but given the other players larger sample size, when averaging Okorafor’s two seasons as a starter (2020 & 2021), you get a total pressure percentage of 3.75%, slotting him between Armstead and Moton which isn’t anything to scoff at.
While Okorafor does struggle occasionally with consistency as a pass protector, he relatively does a good job keeping the QB clean as evidenced by his pressure percentage and sacks allowed over the course of his tenure as a starter at RT. We also must consider the fact that Chuks is still only 24 years old and won’t turn 25 until August, suggesting that he is still developing since coming out of Western Michigan as a talented, yet raw prospect several years ago. For instance, watch Okorafor anchor down against the rush here against the Bears, stalling the edge rusher on the left side with good hand placement and mirrors him as he attempts to fight off the block.
For comparison’s sake former Steelers RT Marcus Gilbert was drafted in the second round back in 2011 out of Florida and was thrust into the starting lineup as a rookie, starting 13 games and surrendered eight sacks. When he became a full-time starter in 2013, Gilbert still struggled to keep the QB clean, surrendering 11 sacks according to Pro Football Focus. He gave up another six in 2014 and it wasn’t until 2015, his fifth season in the league where Gilbert dropped the sack number down to one on the season. Many yinzers were calling for Gilbert’s head initially when he struggled to start his NFL career, but he managed to turn things around and become a solid, steady presence on the OL.
Given the fact that Okorafor was two years younger than Gilbert when both became full-time starters in their third seasons and surrendered 12 less sacks in his third and fourth season as the entrenched starting RT in comparison to Gilbert in 2013 and 2014, who is to say that we have seen the peak of what Okorafor can be as a blocker?
It cannot go understated that Okorafor needs to be more consistent on a down-to-down basis and needs to play more aggressive both as a run blocker and pass protector. However, while breaking down his tape, referencing the stats, and factoring his youth and frankly rawness as a two-year starter, the arrow is trending up for Chuks heading into 2022. Pairing him with James Daniels on the right side of the line presents a young, athletic combination that can grow and develop together much like Gilbert and David DeCastro did in the early 2010’s.
— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) October 18, 2017
This isn’t to say those two will ever match their caliber of play, but if they can even resemble a fraction of that success, especially in pass protection, it will go a long way for a team looking to implement a new starting QB into their system in 2022. I have decided to say the jury is still out on Chukwuma Okorafor and see where his development goes now entering Year 3 as the starting RT.
It hasn’t always been perfect, but what can you expect from a third-round raw tackle prospect? If we can see more consistent, steady play like on this final clip against Chicago where Chuks shuts down the rush, new GM Omar Khan is going to look like a genius signing him to a three-year deal worth just under $10 million per season.
What are your thoughts on Chukwuma Okorafor as a pass protector? Do you think the stats back up the tape? Do you think that Chuks is maxed out, or do you think there is still room for development? How does Okorafor’s development plan mirror that of Marcus Gilbert, if at all? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!