Jeff Okudah gets to reboot career with Falcons

The Falcons introduced cornerback Jeff Okudah, one of their more interesting acquisitions during a busy offseason, on Tuesday. They took a flier on the Lions’ third overall pick from the 2020 NFL draft in exchange for only a fifth-round choice.

Okudah’s career, obviously, has been a disappointment, but injuries have played a major factor in that. He played nine games his rookie season, starting six, but dealt with hamstring and shoulder issues before tearing a core muscle that ended his campaign. In 2021, he played in one game, tearing his Achilles.

So last season was, in many ways, Okudah’s first true season in the NFL. He started 15 games for the surprising Lions, who finished 9-8.

“Last year, even though it was my third year in the NFL, in some ways it felt like my rookie year because that was the most I’d played in two years,” Okudah said. “My first year, I’d probably played 10 games (nine). Second year, I played one game. So in a lot of ways, I hadn’t played that much football. There were a lot of new things. I’d been away from the game for a while. It takes some time to get back into it.

“I was able to sit down this offseason and take the lessons I’ve learned, apply them now, and I’m hoping to see huge growth.”

Detroit spent much of its resources bolstering its secondary this offseason, pushing Okudah down the depth chart and leading the franchise to trade him rather than hanging on to pricey depth.

“A little bittersweet, from the standpoint of relationships that you form playing for a team for three years,” Okudah said. “But I was definitely excited about the opportunity to have a fresh start here in Atlanta and wipe the slate clean.”

Asked about his conversation with Lions general manager Brad Holmes leading into the deal, Okudah said it was brief. “He felt like it’d be the best thing for both sides,” Okudah added. “I agreed with him. And it got moving from there.”

Lions coach Dan Campbell, discussing the trade on “The Rich Eisen Show,” said: “We really felt like, at this time, this is probably the best thing for us and for Jeff. A new change of scenery and give him a fresh start. We felt really good about our guys. And I appreciate Jeff. Jeff was a pro. He came to work, he busted his ass. Man, he worked at it, and he was coming off an injury last year, and we just felt like, ‘You know what, this is the right thing to do right now.’”

Okudah’s role should have more clarity by this weekend. The Falcons could select a cornerback early in this week’s draft, but right now, Okudah is slated opposite A.J. Terrell on the team’s depth chart after the Falcons dropped veteran Casey Hayward.

While Terrell ranks among the NFL’s top corners, the Falcons lack a bona fide No. 2. They’ve been linked to Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez and Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon with the No. 8 overall pick, and should they select one, that player would slot immediately into a starting job.

Even if the team goes that route, it needed further depth in the secondary. Okudah, 24, presents potential, given his draft status and limited playing time. It wasn’t that long ago when he was a prized prospect coming out of Ohio State. He was the consensus pick for the Lions at No. 3 entering the draft. He was viewed as a lock-down corner, one rare enough to select near the top of the class.

Okudah was the fourth cornerback to be drafted in the top five since 2004, following Patrick Peterson (2011), Jalen Ramsey (2016) and Denzel Ward (2018). Those three were multi-time Pro Bowlers, and Peterson and Ramsey made multiple All-Pro teams.

Okudah won’t achieve that type of success, but he still can have a solid career. He can move past the baggage of the past three years and reboot himself.

“(The Falcons are) excited about my ability and what I’m able to do in man-to-man, press coverage and help complement the scheme,” Okudah said. “It’s been really exciting. I think when you’re presented with a new opportunity, you can’t take it for granted.”

What Okudah does now, healthy and presented a clean slate with a new coaching staff, is up to him.

“Sometimes things don’t work out how you intended them to, so you take those lessons and apply them to a new situation, which is here,” he said. “During my time at Ohio State, I saw a lot of success. Didn’t really see many lows. So to see those lows, learn the resiliency that comes from that, going through adversity, it lets you know what kind of man you are.”