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Entering a pivotal season, Jeff Okudah has a chance to prove early doubters wrong

Fair or not, the former Buckeye corner is facing an uphill battle to return from injury and restore his on-field reputation.

Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Jeff Okudah was one of the most naturally-gifted cornerbacks to ever play at Ohio State. And that’s saying something, given the amount of talent fans have seen come through Columbus at the position. If you disagree, I would gladly point out that the former five-star recruit out of Texas became the first and only OSU corner (to date) to earn unanimous All-American status. “El Jefe” possessed a special combination of size, speed, overall athleticism, and technique — and he put it all together to lock down one side of the field for the Buckeyes.

Okudah “only” picked off three passes during his collegiate career, but his real value was found in his ability to force opposing quarterbacks to pre-emptively shrink their field of vision and limit their number of options. He helped the 2019 Buckeyes finish No. 2 nationally in both passing yards allowed per game and pass efficiency defense, and No. 1 in total defense. That was the same year he earned All-American votes from all major outlets, should have won the Thorpe Award, and was robbed of a season-changing forced fumble against Clemson. It still hurts...

The former Buckeye was viewed by many as a can’t-miss NFL prospect, motivating the Detroit Lions to select Okudah with the third pick of the 2020 NFL Draft. But despite his pedigree and sterling reputation coming out of Ohio State, he suffered through a difficult rookie season. In addition to getting banged up, Okudah was regularly taken advantage of by opposing wide receivers, and finished near the bottom of PFF’s positional rankings. It didn’t help that Detroit fielded one of the worst defenses in the league and had few proven vets on that side of the ball, but Okudah was brought in to help remedy that. He failed to do so, and some were foolishly calling him a bust after just one season... And then it got worse.

Okudah tore his Achilles in Week 1 of the 2021 regular season. After missing seven games with hamstring, shoulder, and core muscle injuries as a rookie, he was dealt yet another blow to his early development. He would obviously go on to miss the entire season, and the noise surrounding his bust potential got even louder. But I would argue that any attempts to label Okudah a bust are being made too early in the process, and frankly, show a lack of patience and/or understanding of football.

Cornerback is, without question, one of the most difficult positions at which to make the transition from college to the NFL. Think about it: a corner at any level is tasked with immediately anticipating or keeping up with another player’s movement, and preventing them from getting open near a pre-determined (by the route runner, and unbeknownst to the defender) spot on the field. Okudah was asked to do this against Davante Adams, Adam Thielen, and Justin Jefferson... just within his own division. He got burned, made little impact, and now faces the criticism. He wasn’t the first rookie to struggle at corner, and he certainly won’t be the last.

But Okudah deserves a chance. He hasn’t even gotten started! We’re talking about a player who has appeared in just 10 games, not all of them as a starter. Furthermore, when he was on the field, he was surrounded by a terrible supporting cast. I might sound like a homer defending a former Buckeye, but there is a reason the Lions have consistently picked near the top of the draft. And most of the starters from Detroit’s 2020 defense are gone for a reason — not because they signed lucrative contracts elsewhere, but because the organization decided that one of the league’s worst defenses could do without them.

My point is not to trash the franchise, but instead remind people that Okudah was not drafted into in the best situation. Fortunately, under the leadership of head coach Dan Campbell and with 14-year NFL defensive back Aaron Glenn in tow as the Lions’ defensive coordinator, he has a legitimate opportunity to turn things around.

Still just 23 years old, there is plenty of optimism from both player and team that the young corner will be fully healthy by training camp. Okudah’s youth and lack of wear-and-tear on his lower body could potentially aid in the recovery process, and he has been attacking rehab with a large chip on his shoulder. Not only were he and the team disappointed with the way 2021 ultimately turned out, but Okudah has also been forced to deal with outside noise regarding his play as a rookie. He now describes himself as hungry and ready, and I’m sure he is looking forward to silencing the doubters.

From a football perspective, Okudah should have plenty of opportunity to shine (if healthy) in Detroit. The Lions are in the process of a long rebuild under Campbell, and while they have improved on the defensive side of the ball, the former Buckeye All-American is still arguably one of the most talented players on the entire roster. He did not shrink, develop a fear of tackling, or forget how to play the CB position — he just needs to prove that he has not lost speed and/or athleticism due to the Achilles injury. The on-field growing pains from Okudah’s rookie year are a thing of the past, and should not be held against him. Besides, being on the shelf for an entire season should have given him plenty of time to immerse himself in film study and learn from past mistakes.

There have been rumors or suggestions that Okudah could even move to safety in his third season, and although I think it would be a panic move by Detroit, I am at least intrigued by the idea. In today’s NFL, safeties do not need to be built like linebackers — especially the free safety. The general expectation is for that player to roam center field, cover ground quickly, and limit plays deep down the field. If he is a sure tackler, even better. Well, Okudah has always been a solid tackler, and he possesses adequate size for the position. If he were free to use his corner instincts to track the ball – and by default, be taken out of certain one-on-one situations that gave him trouble as a rookie – there exists a world in which he is a very impactful free safety. I believe Okudah could also thrive as a nickel corner, but that is a different conversation for a different day.

At this point, Okudah could end up anywhere in the secondary because, again, he is just getting started! He is a supremely talented, moldable ball of clay. Injuries have plagued his career thus far, but he is still the same player who was drafted third overall just two years ago. In case you were unaware or needed a reminder, that puts him in a tie for highest-drafted CB over the last 25 years. The other CB drafted third overall during that span? Fellow former Buckeye Shawn Springs, in 1997.

There have only been nine corners total drafted in the top-five (same timeframe), almost all of which went on to become damn good football players. So before anybody tries to hit Okudah with the bust label, let’s give the guy a chance. His entire football story – which is far from over – tells you he is at least worth exercising a little patience.