Recently Texans starting defensive tackle Amobi Okoye has come under a great deal of scrutiny from sportswriters. Some are moderate in their criticism of Okoye, some have defended him using his atypical youth as the reason, and others have almost written him off as a bust. No matter what camp you belong to, it is obvious that Okoye is a pivotal player in the Texans' goal of improving the defense, especially because of the lack of talent at the defensive tackle position.
As stated, Okoye’s youth is unusual, to say the least ,for the NFL; he was drafted at 19 and is entering this season (his third) at 21. It has also turned into a divisive issue. Some claim that more slack should be given the young Nigerian while his body and mind continue to develop, while others feel that if his age was going to be a hindrance that he shouldn’t have been drafted 10th overall in the 2007 NFL Draft and paid the kind of money that comes along with such a high selection.
When it comes to assigning rationale/excuses/apologies to Okoye, why is age always the focus? I personally don’t even think that there is a problem that requires an excuse, and a bust label is simply absurd. Not because of his lack of years on this earth, but because of his years in the league.
The Texans drafted Okoye for the purpose of providing a pass rush. With his smaller frame for the position, he was viewed as a penetrating under-tackle who could collapse the pocket, not a run-stuffing specialist. As with many defensive positions, stats don’t always equate to production but the closest statistical barometer for success of an under-tackle are sacks.
Either defensive tackle specialty doesn’t come easy for the young; youthful not in age, but rather in experience. People always stipulate that it will take quarterbacks and wide receivers two to three years to acclimate to the NFL, but defensive tackles are expected to immediately contribute. This rarely happens.
Take the best defensive tackles in the game today, regardless of their specialty. Vince Wilfork, Albert Haynesworth, Jamal Williams, Casey Hampton, Kevin Williams, Pat Williams, Tommie Harris, Darnell Dockett, Richard Seymour, Kris Jenkins, John Henderson, Shaun Rogers and La’Roi Glover (no longer active) are the defensive tackles who have been selected to the Pro Bowl in the last three years. While the Pro Bowl is sometimes a measure of popularity as much as skill, defensive tackle isn’t exactly a position that the casual fan rushes to vote for and the list above is a who’s who of the group (if you see any glaring omissions, feel free to tell me).
Out of those 13 elite players, only four (Jenkins, Seymour, Henderson and Kevin Williams) were more productive as pass rushers in their first two seasons than Okoye was. Okoye’s 6.5 combined sacks from 2007 and 2008 are better or equal to 70% of the recent Pro Bowlers mentioned.
Another common argument used to criticize Okoye is that first round selections need to contribute immediately, no matter how old they are. Out of the 14 defensive tackles taken in the first round in the last five years, only Luis Castillo has more sacks (10.5). I know that the three taken last year haven’t had two full seasons yet, but none of them had nearly as good a rookie season as Okoye.
So why is everyone so down on Amobi? One reason is that he had a major setback last year. After tallying 5.5 sacks his rookie season, he only managed one last year and it wasn’t until Week 16 against the Raiders. Another reason is this preseason, in which he hasn’t managed a sack yet. Neither has Antonio Smith, our expensive free agent acquisition, but no one is calling for his head yet. I don’t have the exact number, but I’d be willing to say that Okoye and the rest of the first team defense haven’t played more than 6 series thus far.
I’m not saying that Amobi is a surefire future Hall of Famer, or that he will even make a Pro Bowl in his career. I do think, however, that it is ludicrous to call him anything close to a bust given what he has shown thus far. Last year was a disappointment, and I will not give the reasons why I think it happened because it would be contradictory to the beginning of this post, but it is last season plus plays this preseason that would add up to about a half of a football game worth writing him off?
Defensive tackle is an extremely difficult position to draft. Even when you draft an effective one, he doesn’t usually start producing until a few years into his career. Okoye is the youngest player ever drafted, so advocates and critics both focus on that trait as the central point of the argument. Despite that extraordinary quality though, it could be the very typical reason of lack of experience as to why he hasn’t become great. Regardless of whether you like Okoye or not, he is too young in his career to make a final determination yet.