No Detroit Lions player has split the fanbase more than 2020 third overall pick Jeff Okudah. Some are eager to write him off and call him a bust after two inefficient seasons marred by injuries. Others still see potential in the young cornerback due to his tenacious attitude and untapped potential.
There’s no doubt that the Lions have not gotten the return they were hoping out of Okudah through two seasons, but the reasoning for that is not quite clear yet. Obviously, the injuries are poor luck, but are his early on-field struggles excusable or a sign that Detroit got the pick wrong?
More importantly, what can we expect from Okudah going forward? Can he still be the first-round talent that he was projected to be? Is it even possible for him to live up to expectations at this point? Let’s take a closer look in the latest installment of our 2022 Detroit Lions roster preview.
Previously: QB Jared Goff, RB Godwin Igwebuike, RB Jermar Jefferson, RB Jamaal Williams, WR Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR Quintez Cephus, TE Brock Wright, G Jonah Jackson, EDGE Charles Harris, DT Michael Brockers, LB Derrick Barnes
Expectations heading into 2021
After a disappointing rookie season, how Okudah would respond in his sophomore season was a huge storyline. There were plenty of legitimate reasons Okudah struggled in Year 1: he was dealing with a lingering groin injury from college that required offseason surgery after his first year, Matt Patricia’s defense asks a lot of its outside cornerbacks, the NFL’s offseason program was significantly reduced due to COVID-19, the coaching staff didn’t mesh well personally with its players, and rookie cornerbacks typically struggle.
Still, there was plenty of skepticism surrounding Okudah from the outside, because he was hailed as such a clean prospect coming out of Ohio State that the struggles in his rookie season—which were pretty apparent—came as a bit of a surprise.
Inside the building, however, optimism was at its highest. Okudah raved about his new coaching staff, while teammates couldn’t wait for the public to see the new and improved Jeff Okudah.
“He looks like a totally different player,” cornerback Amani Oruwariye said of Okudah. “Mentally, physically, he’s just attacking it, just clear mind, clear heart, and I’m loving it. He asks questions, you can tell he’s just in a different mode when it comes to studying film, and everything. So night and day.”
Actual role in 2021
2021 stats: 1 game (1 start): 4 tackles, 1 pass breakup, allowed completions on two of three pass attempts for 86 yards and a TD
PFF grade: 53.0 (DNQ for ranking)
Okudah’s sophomore season could not have gone much worse. Suffering an Achilles injury in Week 1 robbed him of the chance to develop and get valuable on-field experience at the next level and in the new defensive scheme. And with it being such a serious injury, it also put into question his performance beyond 2021.
As for how he played in the rare moments he was on the field, that didn’t provide a ton of promise, either. Though he did earn a 72.8 PFF preseason grade—despite giving up one big 43-yard play against the Steelers—he had a very tumultuous regular season debut. He allowed another big play—this one to All-Pro receiver Deebo Samuel—which led to the infamous sideline spat with defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant.
If you’re looking for signs of optimism, though, it’s worth pointing out that after giving up each of those big plays, he rebounded nicely with pass breakups:
Okudah did show much improvement from his first year in man. His recognition of crossing routes and how to play them improved, keeping up and in a good position to make a play on the ball. Good PBU. 9/12 pic.twitter.com/ilU3mL8HYp
— William Birach (@ComradPoko) May 18, 2022
Outlook for 2022
In terms of his physical recovery from the Achilles injury, Okudah tackled the process with intensity and focus. Based on what we’ve seen from his social media posts and on-field performance during minicamp and OTAs, Okudah appears ready to hit the ground running at training camp. It would be a surprise if he wasn’t fully ready to go by Week 1, which is a testament to Okudah’s character. He’s been very serious about his rehabilitation, which shows a strong mental fortitude considering all the hurdles in his career thus far.
The question now is how much can we expect of Jeff Okudah? How many of his physical tools will still be there after already going through core and Achilles surgery in his short NFL career? And will he ever acclimate to the NFL game and reach the full potential of a top-five draft pick?
On one hand, Okudah is still just 23 years old, which should not only help him physically recover faster and more thoroughly, but it also leaves him plenty of time to continue to learn and grow as a football player. On the other hand, Okudah only has 10 games of on-field experience, has dealt with injuries in each of his two seasons, and has rarely flashed the abilities Detroit was expecting when they drafted him two years ago. The amount of big plays he’s given up in just a short time on the field is definitely concerning.
Personally, I’m not ready to bet against Okudah. Effort will go a long way in developing at the next level, and, mentally, Okudah has proven he can weather the storm. Given his lack of experience, the struggles won’t be magically gone right away, but the talent he had at Ohio State was undeniable. If he can stay healthy, I believe we could see a very different Jeff Okudah by the end of the 2022 season—one that may, in fact, show why he was almost unanimously considered a first-round talent. And I’m certainly not the only one who feels that way.
“He’s getting better, like I said, there’s a lot of great things that’ll come from him this year.”
“Anybody that’s gone through what Mr. Okudah has gone through his first couple years in the NFL, to see the way he’s transitioning still being endearing to his teammates, listening, being active. I really believe as a coach sometimes players can get lost in practice and not really learning from other people’s mistakes. And Jeff knows, specifically, that time is of the essence for him, and he’s trying to take full advantage of that. And I’m very appreciative and proud of his development.”
“I’m so excited for next year for him, because I saw him work with a purpose and with a mentality last offseason to set himself up for the season. To see him go down like that was just heartbreaking. I feel for him and I’m just excited for his future. I can’t wait to see because it’s been two years and people still don’t know what Jeff Okudah can do. I’ve seen it.”
“I think there’s a reason he went number three overall in the draft. The minute he gets on the field, he can make an immediate impact. It’s just a matter of staying healthy and we’re all wishing for that.”