Ask anyone who has met or spent time with Detroit Lions rookie cornerback Jeff Okudah and you’re likely to get back some combination of the same descriptors: Technician, detailed, smart, inquisitive, hard-working.
By the end of the 2020 season, Lions fans are hoping for one more word to be added to that list: Productive.
Fair warning: That may require some patience, maybe more than originally hoped when the Lions selected the Ohio State cornerback with the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft — the highest any player at the position had been taken in more than two decades.
“He’s very aggressive at the line of scrimmage,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said after the Lions drafted Okudah in April. “He’ll play with his hands. He’ll stay square. He’s patient. There’s not a lot of panic downfield on some of the shots, really good in transition, has good makeup speed. Just really, overall, hard-working, tough kid, loves to tackle and really just loves the game. He loves to work at the game. Loves to just study every single week. He was outstanding with his recall on his opponents and things like that. Just knew that we had a kid that we thought would be a really good player for us.”
All of what Patricia saw evaluating Okudah the prospect has proven true since the rookie’s arrival in Detroit, but that doesn’t ensure he’s going to start the season-opener against Chicago on Sunday.
Not surprisingly, no one in the organization is eager to reveal that information ahead of the game — competitive advantage and all — but there was enough visual evidence during the training camp practices open to the media to suggest second-year corner Amani Oruwariye might be the better early-season option.
“We haven’t made that decision yet,” defensive coordinator Cory Undlin said last week. “Very, very impressed with where (Oruwariye) is at, the things that he’s done this far. He looks like a seasoned veteran right now in everything that he’s doing. I’m really pleased with where he’s at. I’m not making any assumptions on what we’re going to do in two weeks, but I’m very happy with him and he’s played very well.”
If Okudah doesn’t get the call in Week 1, it isn’t an indictment of the player or the pick. It will be a long time before we can cast those judgments. More than anything, the decision would be a circumstance of this unprecedented environment. Already playing one of the more difficult positions to make a quick adjustment to the pros, Okudah was robbed of hundreds and hundreds of practice reps by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As Undlin pointed out a week ago, Okudah had fewer than a dozen practices in a Lions uniform. That’s barely enough time to lay a schematic foundation, but no one is displeased with where he’s at through these early stages of his development.
“Jeff is extremely competitive,” Patricia said. “He wants to compete on every play. It’s just learning some of the things and how we do them that I think he’s made some really great strides on. I really think he’s done a good job and improve in that area. I think the communication of the defense is a big part of it, especially at the corner position working with the safeties, being able to get that communication down. I think he’s done a really good job of that, too. It’s a progression; it’s a long road. There’s a lot to be covered here in a short amount of time. That part of it has been good, but his competitiveness and the way he approaches it and works, that’s been great.”
That competitive drive has impressed his teammates, as has Okudah’s humility. Because of that, veterans on both sides of the ball have embraced helping in the process of bringing him along.
In his own room, the veterans have appreciated how many questions he’s asking and the quality of those queries.
“He’s hungry,” cornerback Justin Coleman said. “Like I can see that he wants to learn as much as possible. He’s asking questions and stuff when we’re on Zoom meetings. He just wants to know more as far as like coaches going over plays or whatever, he’ll ask a question about a certain thing that doesn’t have to do with playing cornerback. It just shows that he knows a lot about football.”
And on offense, Detroit’s top receivers, Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones, have readily pulled the rookie aside after reps, to iron out some wrinkles they’re seeing in the young corner’s technique.
“Just being in his position four years ago — I didn’t go first round, I went third round — but just coming in knowing I had potential to play right away, his head is probably spinning,” Golladay said. “He’s got a lot going on. Me and Marv just tried to tell him, just come up here and get some work with us. Don’t hang around the back, come up and get some work with the competition you’ll be seeing on Sunday, you know? We really just want to help him by any way we can, help him get ready for when Sunday comes.”
Those reps against Golladay and Jones have been a baptism by fire, but everyone agrees they’re only going to accelerate Okudah’s development. And while he came up on the short end the majority of those matchups, as camp progressed, you could see Okudah being in better position and making plays on the ball more consistently.
“I’ve definitely been soaking it in from everyone, whether it’s Marvin, or whether it’s Chase Daniel or whether it’s (Desmond) Trufant,” Okudah said. “I think that just gaining the perspective from different players on the team has been really enlightening for me.”
Trufant has been in Okudah’s shoes before. A first-round pick in 2013, he started right away for the Atlanta Falcons. Of course, he had the benefit of a full offseason program and preseason, something Okudah lost out on.
Even so, in just a few weeks of working together, Trufant is confident his young teammate can similarly find quick success.
“I think he has what it takes,” Trufant said. “I can just tell he’s fundamentally sound. You know, that’s big coming to the NFL from college. Can you do your fundamentals every play? Whether you’re tired. No matter what the situation is, can you continuously do that? I can already tell he’s a technician. He just works hard, too, and he’s always asking questions.
“He’s got a lot of potential,” Trufant said. “He’s got everything you need. He’s tall, fast, long, can run, you know he’s physical. He’s smart. … Obviously, he’s just got to learn the game, find his rhythm, things like that. That’s what everybody has to do, especially at the corner position. Just find that comfort zone. He has a bright future. I’m looking forward to seeing how he does.”
So are Lions fans. And while early patience may be required, there’s reason to hope another descriptor will be attached to Okudah before long: Shutdown.