FLOWERY BRANCH — It is very early in the process, but the remaking of Falcons cornerback Jeff Okudah appears to be off to a smooth start.
“Fresh starts don’t come around often, so when you get them, you have to put your best foot forward,” Okudah said. “Take advantage of them. That’s what I’ve been trying to do. That’s my mindset every day that I step into the building.”
He had some battles with Falcons wide receiver Drake London during Wednesday’s OTA session. He had a nice pass breakup on the left sideline.
“AJ (Terrell) and Jeff are almost kind of the same in play style, I would say,” London said. “But the way they carry themselves, they are going to want to beat you up and make it known that they locked you down. I love going against them.”
Okudah, who was the third overall pick in the 2020 draft, by the Lions, was acquired April 11 in a trade for a fifth-round pick.
After releasing last season’s opening-game starter – Casey Hayward – the Falcons have a gaping hole in the defense at right cornerback. Darren Hall got the first shot at the spot after Hayward suffered a torn pectoral muscle last season.
Cornell Armstrong, a scrappy fighter, ended the season as the starter, and he re-signed.
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. In 2022, he started and played in 15 games.
Teams completed 46 of 76 passes (59.7%) for 681 yards and a touchdown last season when throwing at Okudah, according to Pro Football Reference’s advanced stats. Teams had an 87.6 passer rating when targeting Okudah, which they did at an average depth of 10.9 yards.
The ball was in the air for 411 yards, and Okudah allowed 270 yards after the catch. He had 73 tackles, six missed tackles and one interception.
Okudah has attended the voluntary OTAs and is receiving coaching from assistant head coach Jerry Gray and secondary coach Steve Jackson.
“Another hard worker,” Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen said. “He’s put in the time. He’s been here a ton.”
Coming out of Ohio State, Okudah was thought to be a “can’t miss” prospect with size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) and speed (4.48 seconds in the 40-yard dash).
“Fantastic athlete,” Nielsen said. “Jeff is a smart football player. He knows his limitations, and he plays to his strengths. He’s played in a lot of games. He has had a lot of snaps. I think a change of scenario is sometimes good for a player, one way or another.”
For Okudah, he’s been pleased with the transition to a new team.
“It’s been great so far, coming in with coach Gray,” Okudah said. “He’s a really cool guy and his personality. He’s more laid-back. I can go in there and have conversations.
“The things that he’s telling me are translating as I go out there on the field. So, I’m excited to keep putting in work. Obviously, it’s really early right now. I can only image what the progress will be like months from now.”
In the end of the project, the Falcons are hoping to have two top-flight cornerbacks and pair Okudah with Terrell, who was taken 13 picks later in the 2020 draft. In between Okudah and Terrell, the Jaguars selected C.J. Henderson ninth overall. He’s on his second team (Carolina), too.
“No. 1, you’ve got two really good draft picks,” Gray said. “So, they are really good. They were really good in college. The thing is that A.J. did a great job in his second year, being an All-Pro (second team). Now, we’ve got to get Jeff to do the same thing that he was doing at Ohio State.”
Okudah helped the Buckeyes win three consecutive Big Ten titles from 2017-19. He was named first-team Associated Press All-American and first-team All-Big Ten in 2019 in his only season as a full-time starter.
“So, you’ve got two competitors,” Gray said. “We know they compete because you wouldn’t get drafted in the first round. You’ve got great skills (or) you wouldn’t get drafted in the first round.”
Gray, a longtime secondary coach and former defensive coordinator, is hopeful.
“Now, we have to blend those two guys together,” Gray said. “Let them guys see that, when you’ve got two great players on opposites sides, now they can’t just target one guy. That’s kind of what we are trying to do.
“Get them to understand if you’ve got good football players on this team, learn to compete at high level, now when we go on Sundays, the job isn’t going to be easier, but you still have a better chance of winning that game.”
Okudah and cornerback Mike Hughes, a first-round pick (30th) by the Vikings in 2018, both are reclamation projects. Hughes has been with three teams, the Vikings, Chiefs and Lions.
“Their careers are on track,” Jackson contended. “They’ve done what they’ve done in the past. Now, that they are here, they are a part of this organization. They came here to win. They’ve got the ability to do it. It’s creating and putting them in the right environment to do it.”
Also, the Falcons are high on cornerback Clark Phillips III, who was drafted in the fourth round.
“He’s a football player,” Jackson said. “He was productive in college. I’m sure he’ll be productive being here.”
If the Falcons can get Okudah ready for right cornerback, then Hughes, Phillips and Dee Alford can compete for the nickel spot that’s open after Isaiah Oliver signed with the 49ers in free agency.
Okudah is looking forward to working with Terrell.
“It’s going to push us to get better every single day,” Okudah said. “Both of us are natural competitors. When we step on the field, each of us want to be the best that we can be.”
Okudah, who was drafted by the previous regime in Detroit, was fine with the trade by general manager Brad Holmes, who took over in 2021.
“It’s been a great time,” Okudah said. “I’ve had no complaints since I’ve been here. Coming in and embracing a fresh start. Just having that underdog mentality with a chip on my shoulder.”
When told of Jackson’s belief that Okudah has to ability to play in the NFL in the right environment, Okudah said, “If that’s what (he said), I’m going to try to prove (him) right.”
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com
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