Allen Park — Jeff Okudah’s second season is over. The Detroit Lions’ second-year cornerback suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in the fourth quarter of the team’s season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
It’s a devastating blow for both the player and team. Okdauh had been a standout on the practice field throughout the offseason and appeared primed to make the developmental leap common for players between their first and second seasons.
And the Lions were counting on it. Even though Okudah was drafted by the franchise’s previous regime at No. 3 overall, the team’s new leadership had plenty of faith in his potential to be one of the league’s top young cornerbacks.
“I hate that for him,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said Monday afternoon. “He put in a lot of hard work. He really improved a ton from spring until now. I hate it for him, first, and I hate it for us, as a team because he was really coming around. It’s just one of those things that we’ve gotta adapt to, it is what it is and we’ve got to move on.”
Okudah also battled injuries during his rookie season. A hamstring issue cost him valuable practice time during training camp, after the early portion of the offseason program was conducted virtually in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That hamstring strain also kept Okudah sidelined for the season opener, and by the time he was medically cleared, injuries ahead of him on the depth chart immediately forced him into a starting role, where he struggled.
On throws his direction last season, Okudah allowed 77.4% to be completed for 594 yards and two touchdowns. He did record one interception, a spectacular diving effort in front of All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins, but it was a rare bright spot before another injury, to a core muscle, ended his year after nine games.
Okudah had the core-muscle injury surgically addressed, acknowledging he tried to play through it before the team ultimately shut him down.
Throughout this offseason, Okudah’s confidence and playmaking had both been regularly on display. He also performed well during the preseason, outside of allowing one deep completion when he misread the play pre-snap and tried to anticipate a quick, short throw that never came.
In the season-opening loss to San Francisco, Okudah had an uneven day. The television audience saw him get chewed out by position coach Aubrey Pleasant after failing to be in the right position to make a tackle on a long touchdown run.
Okudah also gave up a 79-yard touchdown pass to 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel in the second half, where he had excellent positioning throughout the route, but failed to make an adjustment when the ball ended up being underthrown.
Okudah’s next challenge will be his rehab. An Achilles injury is one of the toughest for NFL players to come back from because of the importance of the tendon to explosiveness. That said, there are examples of cornerbacks returning successfully, including Baltimore’s Jimmy Smith, who tore the tendon in December 2017 and returned early in the 2018 season, after serving a four-game suspension to start that year.
“Look, it’s tough,” Campbell said. “As somebody that was injured a lot as a player, the hardest thing is to know you’re in the training room again. I think what you’ve got to be careful with is you don’t let it bring you down, and you don’t let it ruin your day, and you don’t sulk about it, because ultimately, it’s the hand you’re dealt. What are you going to do?
“… That’s going to be my whole conversion with him is your sole focus has got to be on 2022 and how do I get back from this,” Campbell continued. “We’ll have this surgery and everything has to be about this rehab, because there’s no other way to treat it. There’s no other way to react about it. It’s the only way he’s going to get better.”
With Okudah out, the Lions likely will turn to another young option in the secondary, third-round draft pick Ifeatu Melifonwu, to fill the void in the starting lineup. He finished the season opener having played 12 defensive snaps.
“He’s been working hard and he’s quietly really improved,” Campbell said. “Yeah, there’s a good chance he’s the next guy up. But look, we’ve got two other young guys, too, Bobby Price and (Jerry) Jacobs. We’re going to put the best combination out there and see where we go. Listen, it’s next man up. We’ve said that from Day 1. It doesn’t matter who’s in there, all that matters is who’s in there does what they’re asked to do and do it the very best that they can do it.”
The team also likely will need to add depth, potentially elevating Nickell Robey-Coleman or Parnell Motley from the practice squad. Campbell said general manager Brad Holmes is currently exploring the team’s options.