Jeff Okudah did not evoke memories of other cornerbacks taken in the top five of recent drafts in his NFL debut Sunday, but the rookie’s first game experience was not nearly as bad as some have made it out to be.
Okudah started and played all 73 defensive snaps in the Lions’ 42-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers. He led the Detroit Lions with seven tackles and got beat on the game’s longest pass play, but viewed as a starting point for what should be a long career, there still was plenty to like.
“It’s hard to take a look at (Sunday’s) game and really think that there was anybody that obviously stood out in a positive way,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “From that aspect, I think there’s a lot of plays on the field that we all need to do a better job of, including Jeff. I thought he did a good job of playing within the game, and certainly there’s some plays out there that we would like to do better than he did yesterday and improve upon. But first game, a lot coming at him from different directions and great players out there on the field, so that was positive from that aspect of it, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
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By my count, after re-watching the all-22 film of every Lions defensive play, Okudah played 39 snaps of pass coverage, with the vast majority of those coming at the left cornerback position.
The No. 3 pick of April’s draft, Okuah split his time between what appeared to be press man and off (or zone) coverage. He allowed six completions on nine passes thrown his way for 96 yards, and did not record a pass breakup.
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Those numbers do not include a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers caught for a 6-yard loss. Rodgers appeared to be targeting Okudah’s man, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, on an out route on the play.
Let’s start with what Okudah did well Sunday.
The first instinct when a cornerback makes seven tackles is to think the opposing offense is targeting him, but that was not exactly the case. Okudah was billed as a solid tackler coming out of Ohio State, and he showed a willingness to contribute as a run defender against the Packers.
Three of Okudah’s seven tackles came on running plays, including a big hit on Jamaal Williams in the second quarter when he could have easily stayed home and left the tackling to linebacker Jahlani Tavai. Okudah appeared to have outside containment responsibilities on the perimeter on the play, and was not reckless pursuing the ball.
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I saw one running play in which Okudah took a false step inside and put himself in a bad position on the edge, allowing former Lions right tackle Rick Wagner to knock him back with a pulling block on a toss play. Otherwise, Okudah earned a plus grade as a run defender.
Of course, you don’t take a cornerback third overall because of his tackling. That player needs to be a lock-down defender in coverage, and there’s no disputing that Okudah was not that Sunday.
But two things stood out about Okudah in pass coverage: First, he got beat badly for an 11-yard gain on an out route by Davante Adams in the second quarter. Adams, one of the best technical route runners in the NFL, deeked Okudah with a jab step inside before cutting to the sideline, and by my estimation had about 7 yards of separation from the rookie by the time he caught the ball.
Adams tried the same move later in the game, on a pass that was thrown a different direction, and Okudah did a much better job ignoring the fake and following Adams to the sideline. Adams probably would have caught the pass had Rodgers thrown his way, but without much yardage after the catch.
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Second, late in the first half, when the Packers were driving for their go-ahead touchdown, the Lions moved Okudah to right cornerback for two plays to have him shadow Adams. I don’t know the logic behind that move, and Okudah had help from Will Harris shaded his way on both plays. But it was striking that the Lions put their rookie cornerback on one of the NFL’s best receivers, and allowed him to give Adams an outside release, away from his help, at such a crucial time.
Okudah did not line up as a true right cornerback the rest of the game.
One play before that sequence at right cornerback, Okudah got beat badly for an 8-yard gain on a slant route by Adams. Making matters worse, Harris was called for a horse collar tackle at the end of the play.
Okudah did not jam Adams at the line of scrimmage on the play (the Lions rarely asked him to jam his receiver Sunday) and was slow reacting when Adams broke inside, almost to the point where it looked like he was expecting Tavai to take Adams in coverage. With better recognition, Okudah breaks on that pass immediately. Adams still would have gained about 8 yards, but there would not have been a penalty tacked on the end.
Adams caught three passes for 36 yards on Okudah for the game, and made the rookie look like a rookie on all three of those plays. Apart from those plays, Okudah gave up a short curl to Tyler Ervin in off coverage that he had no chance of stopping; a 15-yard pass to Valdes-Scantling on a crossing route out of a trips set where he had to run over top of two defenders; and the long pass to Valdes-Scantling that everyone remembers.
(I’ve seen some people put a seventh completion on Okudah’s ledger, but that was a great throw by Rodgers against two-deep coverage when Okudah was the underneath zone defender.)
On the long pass play, Okudah actually appeared to play it well off the snap.
Lined up slot right, pressed against his man on third-and-4 from the Green Bay 32, Okudah stayed in phase with Valdes-Scantling for the first 18 or so yards. At one point, he appeared to pull his hands away from the receiver, as if to avoid an illegal contact penalty, and Valdes-Scantling simply ran away down the sideline for a field-flipping 41-yard gain.
Maybe that’s an example of Okudah’s not-quite-elite speed getting him; he ran a 4.48-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. But Rodgers made a perfect pass, and the Packers had a perfect call on, with go routes to each boundary against a single-high safety look, and two more receivers occupying the middle of the field.
The play, which would have gone for even longer had Valdes-Scantling not stepped out of bounds, ended any chance the Lions had of a comeback and was the type of big gain in a must-have situation that a top-five cornerback should not give up.
There’s no shame in a rookie getting exposed in his NFL debut, especially against a receiver such as Adams. Okudah, I’d venture to guess, would agree that his performance was subpar overall.
But let’s pump the brakes on declaring him a bust, or saying the Lions made the wrong choice at No. 3.
He wasn’t Denzel Ward, a top-five pick who had two interceptions in his debut two years ago, or Jalen Ramsey, who shut down Randall Cobb in his debut against the Packers in 2016. But he’s in line to play a big role sooner than later — even if Desmond Trufant deserves to regain the starting job against the Arizona Cardinals this week — and there’s reason to believe he’ll be more ready next time.
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