Arrow pointing up on Detroit Lions' Levi Onwuzurike despite disappointing season

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  • Detroit Lions
    Detroit Lions
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Levi Onwuzurike
    Levi Onwuzurike
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  • Penei Sewell
    Penei Sewell
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  • Matt Nelson
    Matt Nelson
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Penei Sewell has been everything the Detroit Lions hoped for in a top-10 pick, and Amon-Ra St. Brown has exceeded expectations as one of the best rookie receivers in the 2021 draft.

Alim McNeill is coming off his best game of the season at nose tackle, and Ifeatu Melifonwu and Jermar Jefferson have seen limited playing time for different reasons.

The one Lions rookie who has underperformed his draft status while playing regular minutes this season is second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike, though Lions defensive line coach Todd Wash said nothing that's happened on the field has dimmed his hopes for Onwuzurike's future.

[ Lions can't overreact: Aidan Hutchinson still worth No. 1 pick after Georgia game ]

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph passes as Detroit Lions defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike rushes during the first quarter at Heinz Field, Nov. 14, 2021.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph passes as Detroit Lions defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike rushes during the first quarter at Heinz Field, Nov. 14, 2021.

“I know everybody’s down on Levi, but we’re not," Wash said Wednesday. "I think he’s had some major flash plays, and like we were saying, he’s had some not-so-good plays. But I think the arrow was definitely up on Levi."

The 41st overall pick of last April's draft, Onwuzurike has been a regular part of the Lions' defensive line rotation, albeit without the type of impact general manager Brad Holmes envisioned when he tried to trade up for Onwuzurike in the first round.

Onwuzurike missed most of training camp with a back injury that Wash said has flared up at times during the season, and has one sack, one quarterback hit and two tackles for loss in 15 games.

Lions coach Dan Campbell was critical of Onwuzurike's play in last week's loss to the Seattle Seahawks, when he regularly appeared to get pushed out of his gap as the Seahawks ran for 265 yards.

Wash said his challenge to Onwuzurike this offseason will be to take better care of his body and return a more consistent player in Year 2.

"The biggest thing is we need to continue to improve the lower-body strength and the ability to bend his knees and sink his butt," Wash said. "He needs to get underneath a squat rack and continue to get stronger in his lower body so he can hold up on the pounding that it takes in this league for a defensive lineman. That’s the biggest thing is just lower-body strength and flexibility."

Detroit Lions defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike (75) looks on in the second half Oct. 3, 2021 against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.
Detroit Lions defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike (75) looks on in the second half Oct. 3, 2021 against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.

If those areas improve, Wash said Onwuzurike can provide some of the interior pass rush the Lions have lacked this season.

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"He has flashed some physical dominance, and then he’s had some plays where you go, 'Damn,'" Wash said. "We just have to get consistency out of him and we’ve got to put the pressure on him in practice. And when we get into some games, he just needs to come out and execute and play the way that he’s taught, 'cause he does have that skill set. But we’ve got to see him flip the switch and have a good week this week."

Wife swap

Offensive tackle Matt Nelson heard it from his teammates after he dropped a potential touchdown catch against the Seahawks, and he heard it from his wife.

"I think I caught the most flack from my wife," Nelson said Wednesday. "She’s like, 'It hit your hands, you got to catch it.' I got a lot of crap from the guys on the sideline after, so got to make the most of the next one if granted the opportunity."

Nelson said he had been lobbying coaches "for a while" to have a ball thrown his way.

He finally got his wish late in Sunday's third quarter, when he faked a block on first-and-goal from the Seattle 8 then leaked out to the left flat.

Detroit Lions offensive tackle Matt Nelson during the game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, Sept. 20, 2021 in Green Bay, Wis.
Detroit Lions offensive tackle Matt Nelson during the game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, Sept. 20, 2021 in Green Bay, Wis.

Nelson bobbled Tim Boyle's pass, but his drop set the stage for left tackle Taylor Decker's second career touchdown on a similar play three snaps later.

"I wish it was planned that way," Nelson said. "I mean, if that’s the story we’re going to go with, I executed it perfectly then."

The Lions' swing tackle most of the past eight games, Nelson is in a precarious situation this week with Decker and right tackle Penei Sewell on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Both Decker and Sewell are eligible to play in Sunday's season finale against the Green Bay Packers under NFL COVID protocols, but the Lions won't know either's availability until Saturday.

Nelson, who started eight games at right tackle earlier this season, said he is taking reps at left tackle, right tackle and as the Lions' sixth lineman this week. Will Holden is in line to start at the second tackle position if both Decker and Sewell can't play.

"(Offensive line coach) Hank (Fraley) told me, he’s like, 'Hey, you got to be ready for everything so whatever comes up is what it’s going to be,'' Nelson said. "With this whole COVID thing you never know what you’re going to do so get ready to play all three."

Briefly

Fullback Jason Cabinda missed his fourth straight practice Wednesday with a knee injury. Michael Brockers (knee), Jonah Jackson (elbow), Jalen Reeves-Maybin (shoulder) and Brock Wright (groin) were among those limited.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions want more consistent Levi Onwuzurike in 2022