Jeff Okudah faces uncertain future after Detroit Lions’ free agent upgrades in secondary

Detroit Free Press

PHOENIX — The No. 3 pick of the 2020 NFL draft could be the odd man out of the Detroit Lions secondary this fall, though head coach Dan Campbell insisted the Lions’ free agent additions do not necessarily spell the end of Jeff Okudah’s time in Detroit.

“Just because you acquire these guys that doesn’t mean it’s a lock that they start,” Campbell said Tuesday at the NFL’s annual spring meeting. “It’s probably a pretty good chance, that’s why you acquired them. But my gosh, the best guy’s going to play and they all know that. And all you do is you raise your level of competition. You raise the floor and that’s a good thing for everybody.”

Okudah, the highest-drafted cornerback this milenium, started 15 of a possible 17 games for the Lions in 2022 after missing most of the 2021 season with a torn Achilles tendon.

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He played well early in the season, shining in an October loss to the Minnesota Vikings, when the Lions held All-Pro receiver Justin Jefferson to three catches and a career-low 14 yards, but was benched late in the year for Mike Hughes after dealing with brain and elbow injuries.

Okudah played more snaps last season (793) than he did in his first two NFL years combined (508), but his slow development has left him in limbo after the Lions’ overhauled their secondary in free agency.

The Lions signed Cam Sutton and Emanuel Moseley to play outside cornerback, added safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who could potentially play slot cornerback in nickel packages, and re-signed slot corner Will Harris and special teams safety C.J. Moore.

Along with Okudah, the Lions return starting cornerback Jerry Jacobs, backup Chase Lucas and top safeties Tracy Walker and Kerby Joseph from last season, though Walker is returning from a torn Achilles tendon.

General manager Brad Holmes said the Lions “fully expect Tracy to be back” for the regular season, and Campbell sounded an optimistic note Tuesday about Moseley’s rehab from a torn ACL.

Holmes said the Lions have not made a final decision on whether to pick up Okudah’s fifth-year option, which would lock him into a guaranteed salary of about $11.5 million in 2024.

The Lions seem unlikely to go that route, though they have until early May to make that decision.

“I talked to you guys about Jeff at the end of the season in terms of the unique thing about him is that he’s still growing,” Holmes said. “And he’s still learning as a player, even all the years that he’s been in the league already, it’s still been very minimal play time. I told you that last year was he was basically a rookie in terms of playing time, so he’s still got a lot of ability.”

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Despite all the additions, Holmes said the Lions still could go cornerback early in this year’s draft. Sutton, Jacobs and Lucas are the only corners signed beyond 2023, and the draft is considered especially deep at the position.

What that means for Okudah remains to be seen, but Campbell said the Lions’ newfound depth could make their secondary a strength this fall.

“It adds depth, and it adds competition,” he said. “That’s what it does. That’s what we desperately need.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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