INDIANAPOLIS - Indianapolis Colts linebacker Bobby Okereke today spoke with local reporters via video conference call. What did he have to say about recent team meetings focused on racial injustices, the feeling of unity between the players and coaches and what he hopes to accomplish heading into his second NFL season?
You can catch that entire session above, but here are some top takeaways:
» Okereke and the Colts haven't been focusing much on football the last couple days: Instead, head coach Frank Reich has used the team's virtual meetings - about two hours a day - to let the team address the racial injustices that have been the cause of protests and calls for reform across the nation the last several days.
Okereke said those team meetings have been "incredible."
"I think that's just important for us as players to know that our management, from Coach Reich to Chris Ballard to Jim Irsay, really understand the gravity of the situation in our country," Okereke said. "We've really just taken the time - really two hours each day to just sit and talk. People have shared their experiences and it's just been a huge learning experience for everybody to just get on the same page and realize the influence we have as Indianapolis Colts players and to try and figure out a plan of action of what we can do moving forward."
The last couple days, Okereke said, have featured both players and coaches, black and white, talking about their experiences and their hopes.
"It was very emotional. There were a lot of tears, a lot of compassion and everyone being sympathetic toward each other," Okereke said. "I think for a lot of players on this team - players, staff, coaches - yesterday when we first had that conversation, that was probably one of the most impactful social conversations they've ever had in their life and for me, easily. I think it's just been incredible having these conversations and I think we all need to in our circles going forward to have the change in this country we need."
» After a solid rookie season, Okereke is excited to get back to work in Year 2: In all, Okereke started eight games in 2019, collecting 58 tackles (two for a loss) with one sack, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, two pass breakups and one quarterback hit, and he also intercepted a pass attempt on a two-point conversion and ran it the other way for points on special teams.
Taking a little bit deeper dive into Okereke's first year, he graded out as Pro Football Focus' top-rated rookie linebacker in the NFL, and the eighth-highest graded rookie overall, at 77.3; he was also PFF's No. 8-ranked linebacker overall among those that had played at least 450 snaps, and was named to PFF's All-Rookie Team, along with teammates Rock Ya-Sin and Chase McLaughlin.
Okereke said an early-season performance against one of the top offenses in the NFL really turned into his "welcome to the NFL" moment. Week 5, on the road against the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, it was Okereke getting the start at linebacker in place of an injured Darius Leonard; he had three tackles and recovered a LeSean McCoy fumble midway through the second quarter, helping lead Indy to a 19-13 victory on Sunday Night Football.
"I would honestly say that switch for me kind of flipped after that Chiefs game. I was in that backup role behind Anthony (Walker) as the second MIKE linebacker. I was getting every second, every third snap," Okereke said. "But kind of being thrust into that game - kind of a little baptism by fire after that game, played well. Getting that win was a lot of confidence for our team, but a lot of confidence for me knowing that I can come in and play with Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs and really come in and play versus anybody and play at a high level."
» MIKE linebacker, SAM linebacker - Okereke is going to be ready to play at both spots: Okereke began his rookie season as the primary backup to Leonard at WILL linebacker and Walker at MIKE linebacker, but with Leonard dealing with a concussion early in the season, Walker slid over to the WILL and Okereke took over the duties at MIKE.
Upon Leonard's return, Okereke eventually took over as the team's starting SAM linebacker, which is utilized mostly in the team's base defensive set, but is typically only on the field for about 15 to 20 percent of the defensive snaps as opposed to the nickel package - with an extra defensive back on the field - for most other snaps.
But with Okereke's skillset and production, there could be a desire to get him on the field much more often in 2020; whether that means more base defensive looks or Okereke possibly sharing MIKE linebacker snaps with Walker in the nickel package is yet to be seen, but whatever role is thrown his way, Okereke wants to be ready.
"Obviously, I'm coming into the season playing a lot of SAM and I am prepared to start in that role, but for this team I think the best thing I can do is put myself in the best position to either be the starting MIKE or be the starting SAM," Okereke said. "But (I need) to just have the understanding of the playbook and just be as skilled as I can at both positions so the coaches have an opportunity to make a decision to put the best players on the field."