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NFL Draft

Re-Setting Expectations For Jeff Okudah In Year 2

  • The Draft Network
  • May 19, 2021
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The longer you cover the game of football, the more you pick up on some gems that players or coaches say naturally that help you see the game, or a perspective on it, through a different lens. A few years ago, while discussing the play of young cornerbacks in the NFL, someone told me that “starting as a rookie cornerback in the NFL is like trying to drink water through a fire hose.”

The meaning behind the phrase was that cornerback, being one of the tougher positions in the game to master at the pro level, comes with an overwhelming task in its first year. No matter how talented you are there is something about the pro game that you will have to really adjust to. Sometimes that’s the often-mentioned speed of the game. Other times it can be just how polished wide receivers in the NFL are. Then, of course, there’s mastering your own technique as a coverage player. If you’re starting as a rookie corner, you’re trying to acclimate to all that while being asked to cover some of the best receivers in a trial by fire.

I’ve carried that saying with me ever since, and it often helps me recalibrate my expectations for even the most talented young cornerbacks. To me, that’s what we need to do with Detroit Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah.

By most accounts, Okudah did not have a good rookie season. The Lions made Okudah the highest cornerback drafted since 1997 at No. 3 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. That, in and of itself, comes with lofty expectations. Detroit, after moving on from cornerback Darius Slay, also had a major cornerback need, so when Okudah was drafted, it was under the assumption that he would step in right away as the team's CB1. But just because he was drafted high and just because the Lions didn’t have any other options at cornerback does not take away from the fact that Okudah is human and that a learning curve was to be expected.

Okudah scored one of the lowest coverage grades of any starting cornerback by Pro Football Focus with a 30.9—yes, that’s out of 100. Okudah missed the first week of the regular season last year due to a hamstring injury. In his first game back the following week, he allowed six completions for 96 yards. That was the beginning of a tough road, as he allowed his assignments to catch 77.4% of their targets when he was in coverage. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, Okudah ranked last in yards allowed per route run.

Okudah suffered another groin/core injury in Week 11 that eventually shut him down for the season. All in all, Okudah played in just nine games in 2020 with six starts. It was reported at the time of surgery, however, that Okudah would be ready to go for the following season, which now brings up the questions of what our expectations should be for the consensus No. 1 cornerback in the 2020 class.

Okudah himself said that he knew his rookie transition would be hard.

“I think earlier on this summer I kind of just told myself, ‘Just trust the process. It’s going to be growing pains, it’s going to be good moments and it’ll be bad.’

Playing cornerback is about having confidence. Heck, playing any position against the best in the world at the game of football requires confidence. It certainly seemed like Okudah, at times, did not have confidence; whether that was in himself, in his teammates, in his coaches, or his assignment. Something was off. Think about it. Okudah came from Ohio State. Confidence comes with that territory. He was told every week that he was the best cornerback in the country and he was surrounded by some of the best players and the best coaches, too. Of course he played aggressively and with pride; it was easy to. For that Lions team under Matt Patricia? Well, let's just say Okudah wasn’t the only one who may have lost some confidence in themselves while playing for Patricia. 

After listening to new head coach Dan Campbell talk about Okudah and his situation last year specifically, it sounded like he very much agreed and even challenged Okudaah in that area.

“Man, if you lack confidence as a cornerback or a quarterback? Either one of those two? Then that’s tough, man. You got to be thick-skinned. Like, talking about Okudah, you’ve got to be willing to get your ass beat a couple of times, but then you have to snap back, because the game is on the line, you’re going to have to make that play,” Campbell said. “But I don’t care how talented you are — and you know this — if you lack confidence that the people around you who are making decisions and setting up the defensive calls and [saying] this is what you’re going to do, I don’t care how thick-skinned you are, if you feel like people don’t believe in you, you’re going to lose confidence.”

For as much as Campbell and his regime showed via the 2021 NFL Draft that no player who was on the roster before he got there has a guaranteed spot with his team moving forward, I think Campbell knows how talented Okudah is. He’s going to do everything he can to get that OSU confidence back with Okudah—and with that, he knows the results will come.

Sometimes a new outlook and a new voice in your ear are enough to make a big turnaround in a young career. That’s still in the cards for Okudah after a tough rookie season.

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