Lions’ Jeff Okudah feeling some relief from his rookie ‘growing pains’

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
 
| The Detroit News

When you’re the No. 3 pick in the draft, particularly when you’re the highest-drafted player at your position in more than two decades, expectations are going to be sky high. Fair or unfair, it’s part of the deal. 

Detroit Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah was touted as a Day 1 starter, a player with the ideal mix of physical gifts, intelligence and work ethic to contribute right out of the box. Instead, he’s been prone to the same struggles that most rookies face adjusting to this level. 

Even he admits the transition has been more difficult than anticipated. But before he even arrived in Detroit, he understood there would be inevitable inconsistencies he would need to iron out. 

“I think that earlier on this summer, I kind of just told myself, you know, ‘Trust the process,'” Okudah said this week. “It’s going to be growing pains. It’s going to be good moments, going to be bad. So I think that when I go back and just look at that reminder I sent myself in the summer, I knew what I was in store for.”

And to be fair, this offseason presented unique challenges for every first-year player. The on-field portions of the offseason program were wiped out in favor of Zoom meetings due the pandemic. Another critical casualty was the preseason, where rookies get their first taste of game action. And to top it all off, Okudah battled through an injury during the Detroit’s abbreviated training camp, costing him even more of those limited reps he needed while playing catch-up. 

More: ‘Full-speed’ approach makes Lions’ Romeo Okwara one of NFL’s best pass rushers

So while the outside hope was his talent would be able to overcome all those challenges, that just isn’t reality. 

“He basically got here, had some Zoom meetings over the course of the offseason and then got here and was thrown into a football game,” position coach Steve Gregory said. “That’s basically what it came down to. He’s continually growing. He’s just having to do it the hard way, in real, live football games that matter, ones that count. He’s progressing the best he can under the circumstances. I think he continually gets better at little things every day. He prides himself on working hard and trying to get better and is continually trying to learn. He just has to keep it going and keep learning.”

On the field, there’s been unquestionable strides. Maybe it’s because he finally got past the gauntlet of having to cover many of the league’s top receivers — like Davante Adams, DeAndre Hopkins and Julio Jones — but just as likely is those on-field learning experiences are slowly starting to pay dividends. 

More: Lions rule out starters Swift, Golladay, Amendola; Stafford questionable

“He’s shown the ability to cover those guys, and at times, eliminate those guys,” Gregory said. “Now look, there’s a lot for him to learn. Guys are crafty, guys are veterans, they understand concepts and offenses are running a lot of different things. Some of that stuff you don’t learn until you see it and you’ve gotta go through it and you’ve gotta experience it. Because it’s one thing to see something on paper or see something on film. It’s another to have those guys actually running at you and being down there on the field and in the game.

“But you can just see his raw ability,” Gregory continued. “He understands the game, he’s very smart, he can communicate on game day, he knows what he’s seeing and he instantly understands his mistakes. I think that’s a sign of a player that has the ability to continually get better.”

Currently, Okudah is in a rotation with Amani Oruwariye, another young player who has an extra year of experience in Detroit’s system. Both said sharing time has made it more difficult to get into a rhythm, but the Lions also understand both need and deserve playing time.

After all, they’re likely the team’s future starting tandem, and probably sooner than later. 

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