Falcons’ Jeff Okudah has moved on from his Detroit days

FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons cornerback Jeff Okudah is hoping to make his 2023 season debut against the Detroit Lions, the team who traded the former high draft pick to the Falcons.

Okudah, while covering wide receiver Frank Darby in practice Aug. 4, went to the ground after the ball arrived, and the two players got tangled up. He sustained an apparent right ankle injury and had to be carted off the field. His injury later was diagnosed as a right foot injury.

He returned to practice two weeks ago and could be clear to face the Lions at 1 p.m. Sunday at Ford Field in Detroit.

“I’ve been progressively getting better every single day, every single week,” Okudah said. “I can’t complain with where I’m at, from where I was. So, I’m optimistic for sure.”

Okudah was the third player taken in the 2020 draft by the Lions. His development was slowed by injuries, and he was traded to the Falcons on April 11. He’s trying not to get too hyped up about facing his former team, who let him go for a fifth-round pick.

“In this game, you can’t get too high or too low,” Okudah said. “I’m just locked into the task at hand. Showing up and trying to be the best I can be for this team right here.”

A rash of injuries have short-circuited Okudah’s start in the NFL, with him missing major parts of his rookie season and nearly all of the 2021 season. Okudah acknowledges that he learned a lot of lessons during his stint with the Lions.

“The highs,” Okudah said. “The lows. Playing through adversity. Those lessons are invaluable and things I could point to for the rest of my career.”

Okudah thought things began to smooth out last season when he started 15 games.

“In this game, there are ebbs and flows,” Okudah said. “You don’t want to get too high. You don’t want to get too low because things can change in a moment. You just want to stay level-headed and do your best to show up every single day.”

Okudah’s time in Detroit taught him how to deal with adversity.

“Just trying to get rid of the Utopia mindset, that things will always go perfect,” Okudah said. “Try and just take things as they come. Obviously, in this game, there are a lot of competitors. Things may not always go your way, but, you know, what I’m learning is how you respond, how you bounce back from all of that.”

Falcons assistant head coach/defense Jerry Gray looked forward to working with Okudah and has tried to help him salvage his once-promising career.

“The big thing I think about with football players, the first thing you got to do is get rid of what you did there,” Gray said. “I’ve been one of those guys where you go to another team and you play against the team you got drafted by. You know what, it’s just another game for him, and hopefully, he thinks like that.”

Knowing the Lions should make Okudah a little more comfortable.

“You understand a little bit more than we know because you’ve actually practiced against those guys for three years,” Gray said. “So, he understands what they’re going to do and he can remember, ‘OK, this formation, they did this, they did that.’ So, he has a lot more insight. That’ll make him play a little bit more comfortably.”

The Falcons are not looking at it as a “revenge game” for Okudah.

“To me, you have to fight that,” Gray said. “You have to fight the, ‘I want to get revenge,’ and stuff like that because it doesn’t work. If you get revenge and you lose, guess what? You hurt the team and you lose.”

Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen also has been impressed with Okudah.

“He’s all business,” Nielsen said. “He’s full speed all the time.”

Okudah enjoyed working with Gray over the offseason and early in training camp.

“From the moment I got traded, we talked on the phone,” Okudah said. “He said there is a lot of talent, a lot of potential he wants to pull out of me. Moving forward, I’ve just been at his hip, learning what I can.”

Gray was with the Packers for the previous three seasons and mentored cornerback Jaire Alexander, who was taken 18th overall in the 2018 draft.

“Interestingly enough, before the game last week I was talking to Jaire, and he was like ‘stick with him, this guy is a great teacher,’” Okudah said. “I can’t say otherwise because since I’ve been here he’s been just a tremendous teacher.”

Okudah has a different approach to dealing with his injuries.

“When I came back from the Achilles, once I put that in my back pocket that I could do that, I got over that obstacle,” Okudah said. “It’s all moving forward. … It’s just another obstacle.”

Finally, Okudah got on the field last season full-time. Opposing quarterbacks completed 46 of 77 passes (59.7%) for 681 yards and a touchdown. Opposing quarterbacks had a 87.6 passer rating when throw at Okudah.

“My last year of playing, last season (I was) back freshly back from that Achilles,” Okudah said. “I just had it in my mind that I could build from that. That was my first time playing that much football probably since 2019 (at Ohio State). So, why not try to build from there.”

The Lions had other plans.

“You just go back to the drawing board,” Okudah said. “I’m here now, so this is where I have to be, where my feet are.”

Okudah didn’t see the trade coming.

“In retrospect, I’m just really glad to be here,” Okudah said. “I think it worked out really well for both sides.”

It’s an important season for the Okudah because via the trade he doesn’t have a fifth-year option and will be a free agent in 2024.

“You try to put your best foot forward in whatever situation that you’re in,” Okudah said. “If I was there, I’d have to put my best foot forward. But I’m here. So, I have to find a way to put my best foot forward.”

The Falcons are ready to welcome Okudah back into the secondary.

“He’s excited,” Falcons safety Jessie Bates III said. “It’s kind of like a homecoming for him. I know he’s excited to go out there.”

Bates signed a four-year, $64 million deal with the Falcons in free agency.

“I know how important this year is for him and his career,” Bates said. “Just slowly getting him into the mix is very important. He’s a starter in this league. Really good player. Really good person that deserves to have success on the field.”

Before the injury, Okudah was playing at a high level. He was replaced in the lineup by Tre Flowers.

“He’s brings a lot of swagger to our team,” Bates said. “He brings some experience being an older guy. It’s always good having your brothers together as a whole group. It’s going to be feeling good when No. 1 is out there.”

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