EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – If the Giants could construct a prototypical inside linebacker in a football lab, the finished product might just be Bobby Okereke.
"You're getting a fast, physical linebacker," Okereke said on his introductory Zoom with reporters after signing his contract and officially joining the Giants. "Very smart, very intelligent. Has good ball skills and is sideline to sideline. I love to run and hit, and I'm really just a team-first guy. I don't have a big ego – humble guy. And I just want to win games."
Okereke is exactly what the Giants need and what they sought when free agency began this week. Although they were a playoff team in 2022, the Giants' run defense was not as stout as they desired. The defense finished 27th in the NFL defending the run, allowing 144.2 yards a game. Their opponents averaged 5.2 yards a carry, the league's second-highest figure.
Those numbers should improve with Okereke in the middle of the defense. A 6-1, 235-pounder, he spent his first four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. His career totals include 409 tackles (285 solo), 15 stops for loss, 2.0 sacks, three interceptions, 17 passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Okereke believes he can improve both his production and the Giants.
"This was unique because it was a great offer and a great team fit," he said. "Obviously, this defense is just really good. I got two great guys playing in front of me (Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams). Two good guys on the edge (Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari). Really, the whole defense is doing well. This offense is playing really well and playing really well toward this past year, end of the season. So, just excited to be part of the rise."
Okereke, who will be 27 when the 2023 season begins, missed just two games in four seasons with the Colts and has played in 40 consecutive games, including one in the postseason. He is a three-down linebacker who has played in 64 regular-season games with 49 starts. In the previous two seasons, Okereke participated in 91.6% of Indianapolis' defensive snaps, including a team-high 98.4% in 2021.
Okereke, 6-1 and 235 pounds, certainly made a favorable impression in MetLife Stadium on New Year's Day, when he had a career-high 17 tackles, including 13 solo and two for loss, plus a forced fumble, in the Colts' 38-10 loss to the Giants (who clinched a playoff berth). It was his fourth double-digit tackle game of the season and the ninth of his career.
"Everything just kind of came together that game, honestly," he said. "Obviously, I kind of knew how well the Giants were playing at that time in the year. Playing against Saquon (Barkley) and Daniel Jones, I knew the challenge I had. Had a really good week of preparation and coming into the game, just the feel and the atmosphere in the stadium - now it's a blessing that I get to be a part of it.
"But I was just amped up, playing really well. And I got in a groove that game, obviously 17 tackles. Had the forced fumble, a couple TFLs (tackles for loss). I just felt very free playing. So, it was exciting. And for that to be my best game of the year, for this to come full circle and for me to be a New York Giant in this moment, it's just really surreal. I'm very grateful."
View the best photos of new Giants linebacker Bobby Okereke.
Okereke said his duties will expand in defensive coordinator Wink Martindale's position-less defense.
"I'm going to blitz a lot more, which I'm excited about," Okereke said. "I've had a lot of blitz sack-fumbles. I had a really good one, I want to say a year or two ago, against the Titans. I love playing fast, physical. And I think that's why coach Martindale blitzes so much, so players can play free. There's not a lot of thinking, and that's what you want to eliminate. You want to eliminate thinking and just have fast decision making."
Because he had just two sacks in four seasons, Okereke was asked why he didn't blitz more often with the Colts.
"I think coverage has been such an asset of mine," he said. "Coaches have always felt that if they blitz in front of me, I'm a guy who can scrape over the top and clean things up. Or if I'm the sole guy in coverage, I'm going to hold up. So, I'm just excited for the opportunity."
Okereke hasn't yet attended his first meeting, but he's just as excited to play for Martindale as those who were with him last season.
"He's very real," Okereke said. "He's a straight shooter. But Wink's a cool guy. I just figured that out in the first couple of minutes I got to hang out with him. I'm just excited. I got his number. I'll be talking to him throughout this whole process, OTAs. I'm just looking forward to building strong relationships here in this building so we can build as a team."
Because he is a durable tackling machine, Okereke knew he several teams would show interest in free agency. But the California native said moving to New Jersey was an easy decision.
"This was a team I had my eye on," he said. "There was a lot of mutual interest. When things lined up, just worked with my agent. I told him once we had the right deal, I was ready to pull trigger. So, this honestly is the perfect situation for me.
"There were a couple of teams that were interested throughout the whole process. And I told my agent from day one, 'I want to play in New York City.' New York City's been one of my favorite cities, growing up, my whole life. And this franchise is on the rise. I was very fortunate to play behind (Colts defensive linemen) DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart. Very elite defensive tackles, and to be able to replicate that, if not improve on that here with Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams, it's just a very fortunate opportunity for me as a linebacker. I'm excited. I'm excited for the opportunity. I'm excited to meet the leaders of this team. I'm excited to be part of this defense and franchise."