If it happens Sunday, and it should, Jeff Okudah could not have picked a bigger stage for his first career start: Against a two-time MVP quarterback, throwing to one of the NFL’s premier wide receivers, in one of the league’s most storied venues.
“He’s been preparing himself for this moment his whole career,” Lions defensive backs coach Steve Gregory said. “I don’t think he looks into it as much as the people on the outside look into as being, ‘Oh, this is my first game in the NFL, I’m playing against Aaron Rodgers.’ I think he looks at it as just an opportunity to go out and play a football game and to show the guys in this locker room, his teammates, what type of football player he can be.”
The No. 3 pick of April’s draft, the Lions are counting on Okudah to be a difference maker in their secondary. And if they're to avoid a calamitous 0-2 start, they’ll need him to be one now.
That means Okudah likely will start at left cornerback, play a healthy share of snaps against a future Hall of Fame quarterback and not be subject to the slow indoctrination the Lions appeared to be grooming him for throughout training camp.
Okudah spent most of August working with the second-team defense behind Trufant. On the rare occasions when he did work with the first-team, Okudah played both the left and right cornerback positions, suggesting the Lions were going to use him as their top backup, and perhaps work him into the rotation at both spots.
Okudah suffered a minor hamstring injury in training camp, which cost him valuable reps, and the team ultimately decided to deactivate him last week against the Bears.
In a move related to new COVID-19 protocols, Okudah did not even attend the opener at Ford Field, making today’s trip to Lambeau Field the first time he has ever been to an NFL game.
“I wouldn’t say (it is) intimidating,” Okudah said. “I think that it’ll just be, for me it’ll be just pretty awesome, actually, to line up against Aaron Rodgers, someone that obviously, being a football fan, have known about his game and how well he’s played for such a long time. So just to go out there and be able to actually start to compete against these guys that you grew up watching, for me it’s just kind of really cool.”
While teams such as the Jacksonville Jaguars (with C.J. Henderson) and Las Vegas Raiders (with Damon Arnette) threw their first-round cornerbacks directly into the fire, Okudah has taken more of a watch-and-learn approach with the Lions.
Throughout training camp and even in practice this week, he often stood apart from his fellow cornerbacks at the start of drills, studying their movements and inundating Gregory and some of his veteran teammates with questions about what was happening on the field.
“The thing about Jeff is he’s a very detailed guy so when he’s looking at something, whether it’s a coverage or a concept, he wants to know what the details of that coverage or concept are,” Gregory said. “And he wants to feel completely confident that he knows exactly what he’s doing when he goes out there so that he can go ahead and just let it rip and go use his athleticism and just play football and not be thinking too much. He’s very observant. He likes to watch a lot of film. At moments he does like to stand back and just observe things so that he can see the big picture of it all, and I think he does a good job with that and he knows how to manage that stuff pretty well.”
This week, Okudah said he spent the days after the Bears game asking his fellow rookies and former Ohio State teammates what their first NFL experience was like.
Arnette, who played with Okudah at Ohio State, had five tackles and a pass breakup in his NFL debut, while Henderson, the second cornerback drafted, had an interception among three passes defensed.
“Just hearing everyone talk about their different experiences, it just made me even more eager to play,” Okudah said. “But for me, I just always have to make sure to never get too high or too low, just always stay level and I think that’s really helpful in keeping my mind at ease for this game on Sunday.”
Whatever mindset he’s in, Okudah will have a daunting task on the field.
Rodgers is a two-time MVP who will go down as one of the best quarterbacks of this generation, and he’s coming off a surgical 364-yard, four-touchdown passing performance in the Packers’ Week 1 win over the Minnesota Vikings.
Davante Adams, Green Bay’s No. 1 receiver, caught 14 passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns last week, and is known as one of the best route runners in the NFL.
Adams lines up all over the field, so Okudah won’t be responsible for covering him every play, but he and Rodgers did some of their damage last week by picking on Vikings rookie cornerback Cam Dantzler.
Rodgers completed his longest pass of the game, a 45-yard touchdown to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, on Dantzler.
The Lions are prepared to give Okudah whatever help he needs in the secondary, while their hope is his debut falls more in line with some of the other recent high-draft pick cornerbacks.
Denzel Ward, the last cornerback taken in the top five before Okudah, had two interceptions in his first NFL game in 2018, a 21-21 tie against the Pittsburgh Steelers and future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
And two years earlier, another top-five corner, Jalen Ramsey, largely shut down wide receiver Randall Cobb in his debut against none other than Rodgers and the Packers.
Rodgers did not make a point to attack Ramsey that day, but if his intentions with Okudah are otherwise, Gregory said, "Jeff'll be ready."
“He’s a competitor,” Gregory said. “I think the biggest thing with him is even in practice or meetings or whatever it is throughout the day, he just wants to go out and compete, and I think for him, he’s just excited to go out there and compete at this level, which is something that he’s been dreaming about for his entire life. It’s just an exciting moment for him and I don’t think it’ll be too big of a stage.”
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Ready or not, Detroit Lions need Jeff Okudah to help stop Aaron Rodgers