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Understanding Jeff Okudah’s fall from 3rd overall selection to his trade for a 5th-round pick

It is an unusual path as few teams give up on a player that quickly.

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Falcons have aggressively attacked this offseason now that the team is flush with cap space. Among the big moves like signing Jessie Bates, somehow locking down Calais Campbell, along with other potential impact signings like David Onyemata and Bud Dupree, was a notable trade due to the player’s draft pedigree: former third-overall pick Jeff Okudah.

One of two trade targets so far this offseason after Jonnu Smith, Okudah differs from the tight end in that he just turned 24 and is still on his rookie deal. Secured for only a 5th round pick, how did Atlanta land the top corner in the draft that also included Atlanta’s own AJ Terrell?

Luckily, Jeremy Reisman from Pride of Detroit, SB Nation’s hub for the Detroit Lions, was able to explain how the Falcons ended up with Okudah for such a cheap price.

What made Okudah the third overall pick?

Quite simply, he was a dominant man-to-man cornerback at Ohio State for two years. During that time, he never ceded more than 50 yards in a game and allowed a catch rate of just 39 percent. Throw in prototypical outside corner size at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, and he was a pretty darn clean college prospect. He also fit a big need for the Detroit Lions after Matt Patricia ran Darius Slay out of town.

Where did things go wrong with Okudah?

Injuries stifled any real chance for Okudah to develop. Even in his rookie season, Okudah was recovering from a core injury in college. He fought through it in 2020, but it clearly affected his game and he had offseason surgery. The next year, there was optimism he would come in fresh with a new coaching staff, but after an optimistic preseason, he suffered his Achilles injury in the season opener that year.

After an intense recovery, Okudah was impressively able to participate in 2022 training camp and reclaim his starting job. But 2022 was another up-and-down year that ultimately ended with his benching.

Okudah has never truly had a normal offseason. His rookie year was during COVID, which had a severely shortened offseason program. The next year he was recovering from the core surgery. Last year was all about Achilles recovery, and now in what was supposed to be his first “normal” offseason, he has been traded. That sort of instability is bound to impact a players’ performance and mentality.

How did Okudah look after his injury?

If we’re talking Achilles, he actually came out in 2022 and looked like he was determined to take his career back. The first month of the season was what Lions fans were hoping to see out of him, as he helped shut down Justin Jefferson in Week 3 (three catches, 14 yards). However, that flash was fairly short-lived. The following week, he and the entire Lions secondary was picked apart by Geno Smith, and his game never fully recovered.

That said, I would recommend watching the Lions’ Week 7 game against the Cowboys. The Lions utilized him in a way they hadn’t ever before: as a box defender. Playing close to the line of scrimmage, Okudah was a phenomenal run defender in that game, posting seven run stops per PFF—four more than he had in any other game in his career.

By the end of the season, Okudah had become enough of a coverage liability, though, that he was benched towards the end of the year in favor of Mike Hughes—a cornerback they did not retain in free agency. (Hughes is with the Falcons now. - Ed.)

Is Okudah a victim of the new coaching staff/scheme?

I would not say so.

Okudah was billed as a premier man-coverage corner, and that’s exactly how Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn tried to use him when they inherited him from the Patricia era. Glenn has been very fluid in his defensive system, trying to mold it to the players’ strengths, and they did that with Okudah.

It just did not work out.

What are your thoughts on draft compensation?

The draft compensation was right in line with what I was expecting.

Obviously, a former third overall pick is going to have a market, but when the player has had an injury as serious as an Achilles and hasn’t made much out of the small amount of opportunities they’ve had on the field, it’s hard to demand anything more than a Day 3 pick. The only thing that’s mildly disappointing from the Lions’ point of view is the finances of the situation. Obviously, they were not going to keep Okudah on the roster at his $10.3 million cap hit if he was going to be a backup. But the he’ll still count $7 million against the cap due to his prorated signing bonus ($5.5 million) and the $1.5 million in salary Detroit is eating as a favor to the Falcons to facilitate the deal.

With that favor, it would’ve been nice to see that bumped to a fourth rounder.

Thoughts on his future outlook?

As I pointed out before, this will be the first offseason Okudah can get a full workload of just focusing on football. He’s a highly-motivated player that will certainly use this as a chip-on-his-shoulder moment. I tend to believe in players like that. That said, there still needs to be a switch flipped on the field. Okudah is a cerebral player, but sometimes it looks like he overthinks while he’s out there rather than just going out there and playing.

I believe Aaron Glenn to be a phenomenal defensive backs coach, and his coaching history in New Orleans supports that. So if he couldn’t get Okudah right, there’s some warranted skepticism whether he can ever turn it around. That being said, Okudah is going to give Atlanta everything he’s got, and with a fresh start and a couple years removed from serious injury, he’ll have a decent shot at rewriting his story.