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Jeff Okudah's rookie season was a mess. What comes next?
Okudah's rookie season was brutal. What went right for the former number three overall pick, what went wrong, and what can Detroit expect in year two?
Let’s start with a cold, hard fact: The Matt Patricia era in Detroit was a disaster. Things were so off the rails by the end that it feels harsh to even consider judging any individual player.
Patricia appeared to have no concrete plan beyond the typical rah-rah stuff that comes with being a first-time head coach. We’re going to hit harder, run farther, coach smarter... blah, blah, blah. It was a style that belied his credentials with the Patriots, which was all about molding players to Belichick doctrine and then making week-to-week adjustments.
One player caught up in the schematic black hole: Jeff Okudah, the third overall pick in the 2020 draft.
At the time of his selection, Okudah was a slam-dunk, no-brainer pick. He was a unanimous top-five prospect. He had length. He had size. He could run -- really run. In a classic press-and-trail, three-match system, he had all the tools needed to be a premier cover corner.
Or maybe not. His first season in the league was a mess. Patricia played a simplistic style on the back-end, relying on off-man coverages paired with a smattering of match-coverages -- the hope being that by reading things post-snap the same coverage concept could cover up for any structural issues. There was little movement or creativity. Players played in their spots. Corners (more or less) played one side of the field. Things might get a little funky up-front, but on the back-end, it was static. This is how we’re gonna play. Our corners can either match up one-on-one or they can read it in a match concept, or they can’t. Simple.
That, umm, didn’t work. It was too simplistic. Opposing offenses feasted. The Lions didn’t have the horses to play the kind of static/predictable system that the likes of Alabama and Ohio State can get away with snap after snap (or that Seattle used to run through the league for four consecutive seasons). The Lions finished dead stinking last in DVOA, Football Outsiders efficiency metric, and that despite a slight uptick in output once the team moved on from Patrica after Week 12.
Okudah was the most miscast of a miserable cast. A long, rangy corner, he looked out of his depth in a read-and-react system. It’s as if Patricia had no idea who the team had drafted, or he prioritized a (non-working) system above the gifts of the player the team had selected with its most valuable asset, a top-five selection. In retrospect, taking Okudah to play in an off-man-based system was bonkers… or nonsense… or bonksense. Whatever it was Patricia was trying to build, Okudah wasn’t the right piece.
ProFootballFocus ranked Okudah 129th out of 136 eligible cornerbacks in the league during his rookie season. And, if we’re being honest, Monson et al. were probably being kind. Okudah gave up 11.2 yards per target, 14.5 yards per completion, and gifted an eye-watering 77 percent completion percentage on balls thrown his way. His season ended with groin surgery.
A rookie cornerback struggling isn’t anything new. It’s a position that takes time, that needs to marinate. The volume of decisions, the variety of route combinations, and the speed at which players are forced to process is on another level, no matter what they faced in college.
Cornerbacks typically take a decent leap in their sophomore campaign before really revealing who they are in year three.
Year two is key for Okudah. Beyond his irritating cap hold ($7 million this year with $16 million in dead money; $9 million next season with $10 million in dead money) the new Detroit brain-trust has no loyalty to the old staff’s guy.
The Lions’ defense will look different this year (more on that later). Aaron Glenn, the former Saints defensive backs coach, has been tasked with overhauling a group that lacked speed and tenacity under Patricia. Things are unlikely to be any more sophisticated in the early goings, but Glenn at least brings with him a philosophy that meshes with Detroit’s limited talent. And he will demand intensity.
Squeezing any sort of juice out of Okudah will be one of Glenn’s top priorities. The rest of the Lions’ cornerback room looks fairly drab, populated with rookies and a whole bunch of maybe-possibly-hopefully players.
Even after last year’s debacle, there’s pressure on Okudah to bring some oomph to an iffy unit.
Okudah is a turn-and-run, bump-and-run player. He pins those long arms on you at the line of scrimmage, dislodges your timing, and then tries to make a play on the ball. He isn’t a hip-carry guy.
In college, he made up for some technical flaws with his speed and limbs. Ohio State ran a vanilla system, relying on Okudah to play bump-and-run on the outside, while carrying any vertical routes on the team’s match concepts, which gave him the freedom to pass off anything underneath, where he could retreat and then rally to the ball. It was fairly rudimentary stuff. And Okudah shone, in part because he was always– always – sticking his hands-on receivers at the line of scrimmage.
That changed in Detroit. As mentioned, Patricia played a blanket cover-1 defense with his cornerbacks off the line of scrimmage. Detroit would sprinkle in some three-match stuff and the odd dose of spot-dropping zone-coverage, but, for the most part, it was basic man-to-man coverage with the corner given space to read and drive on the ball.
That’s not Okudah’s game. There was a delay in everything he did. He wasn’t reading and firing. He was waiting for everything to unfold in front of him and then playing catchup, banking on those legs and arms to bail him out. At the pro level, that’s not close to good enough.
Okudah is planted nine yards off the ball. He sits and he waits… then he waits… then he waits some more. While every other corner is on the move, trying to disrupt a receiver or positioning themselves to try to force a receiver to reveal their intentions, Okudah waits… and waits… and waits some more. He doesn’t begin his back-pedal until the opposing receiver is in full stride. He has no chance once the receiver commits.
As the receiver hits the top of his route, he shapes outside. Okudah fails to close the space, backing up slightly as he tries to get his feet going.
By the time he’s shaped his hips and has begun to engage in the play, it’s a wrap. There’s not enough space for him to wall off the inside. The receiver whips back towards the middle of the field.
Okudah isn’t even in the same orbit as the receiver makes his break. He’s forced to spin around to try to find exactly where the receiver has wound up. As the ball hits the hands of the receiver, there’s a full four yards difference between defender and receiver.
Look at the rest of the shot:
Not awful. There’s a flat defender to stop an outlet pass. There is a bracket in the low hole and safety sitting and stalking on the back-end. To the quarterback’s left, there’s a receiver with a step on a corner, but the corner is just close enough to be able to make a play on the ball if need be. And then there’s Okudah lagging behind, gifting an easy completion 20-yards downfield.
Teams challenged Okudah early and often in off-coverages by forcing him to sift through rubble across the field:
Word was out: Detroit’s outside corner was (to be polite) struggling with route anticipation. Each week it was the same script: Okudah waiting too long for a route combination to reveal itself and then trying to play catchup.
Opposing OCs delighted in stacking up formations, forcing Okudah off the ball and to have to sift through two or three releases at once. He didn’t have the nous or instincts to process it all.
Below, Detroit gets some pressure in Alex Smith’s face, forcing the ball out of his hand early.
But focus on the back-end. It’s the same snapshot as the Colts example: Okudah twisted around, facing the wrong direction, four yards off his receiver. He had help inside and yet set up like he wanted the Washington receiver to push towards the outside. Okudah was caught at the top of his backpedal. As the receiver shot to the sideline, Okudah was forced to spin around to try to catch up. Compare that with the corner on the other side of the field, playing the same three-man bail technique.
Communication proved to be an issue, too — pre- and post-snap. Pick a random game, scan through it, pause whenever, and you will catch Okudah flapping his arms around pre-snap, either frustrated at his assignment or unsure of exactly what defense the team was running; his other tendency was to point at exactly he was guarding pre-snap (as the Washington example showed, it didn’t exactly work). “Those guys looked confused,” Glenn told The Athletic after studying last season’s tape.
Atlanta worked Okudah over with a series of basic motions and shifts.
Call it a soft motion or short motion or whatever you want: The Falcons receivers would simply stroll from a wide split into a slightly narrower one, throwing off Okudah’s compass. Julio Jones was given the freedom to stroll a couple of paces, inside or outside in order to shift the angle slightly. The combination of poor communication (continuing right up until the snap) and sloppy reactions made it a brutal afternoon for the Lions’ DB.
In zone coverages, (the Lions were forced into more zone looks against the Falcons because Julio is Julio) the issue intensified. Okudah didn’t have a sense for when to pass a receiver off or where exactly he was supposed to be located on the field.
Look at the Lions’ coverage distribution above. Can you spot the odd man out?
That’s as basic a cover-2 look as you can get: two deep safeties; a linebacker in the middle hole; two either side; two curl/flat defenders. Except there’s only one curl/flat defender; Okudah was dragged inside by Jones’ initial release and only peeled out when it was too late.
By the time he tried to recover, he was stuck in no man’s land, unable to squeeze down to prevent the easy completion to the flat and not close enough to impact any throw to the in-breaking receiver that he had initially traveled with.
Playing any kind of zone or match-based coverage with Okudah outside became a gamble the Lions coaches were less willing to take. At times, it was hard to even tell what zone the Lions were trying to play, such was Okudah’s issue with running into his teammate’s own space, compromising the distribution of defenders.
(There is a pretty easy follow-up here: Why not just ditch Okudah out of the line-up altogether? That would, of course, invite a ton of questions –and the Lions weren’t exactly blessed with perimeter corner talent – but Patricia was coaching for his job. If was going to go down with this style and this philosophy, why go down like this?)
Banjo coverages (a way of defending stacked receiver formations) and match coverages (hybrid zone-man coverages) were compromised, too.
Some of this is basic day one install stuff. And it’s stuff Okudah ran in college, which makes the whole thing triply concerning.
But then we return to the issue of the pre-snap alignment; Okudah being off the line of scrimmage at the snap rather than up close and personal, jamming people.
Learning the nuances of off-coverage can take time. But here’s where the real concerns start to kick in: Okudah was just as sloppy and ineffective when up in press-man coverage.
All of which begs a question that only a beat-writer or someone associated with the team can ask or answer: was this improper technique or strange coaching?
Here are the first four bullet points from the Patriots’ 2015 rookie mini-camp defensive install (Malcolm Butler was in that group), the year the Patriots beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl:
Just because you have 11 guys wearing the same-colored jersey doesn’t mean you are a coordinated unit.
Must collision WRs so they don’t just run downfield uncontested.
Get on WRs quickly – don’t give them any space.
Don’t let them inside – keep good inside leverage.
Communication. Collisions at the line of scrimmage. Inside Leverage. It’s four simple tenants; four that Patricia had a hand in building.
Nothing in Patricia’s past suggests he’d want his players up at the line of scrimmage not trying to dislodge the timing of a receiver’s route. Why else would he commit resources up at the line of scrimmage? He already likes to keep his guys off the LOS. If they’re up there it’s to press, right?
Not Okudah – not really, anyway.
Playing press-man is all about setting the terms of engagement. The receiver may know where his route is going, what the route combination is, the timing, and where the ball is expected to go, but the corner can muddy the waters by re-setting the receiver, either by disrupting their path or timing.
Again, Okudah was good (really good!) in college in a press-and-bail system. In the pros, there was that continual delay in everything he did.
Above, he’s up against Justin Jefferson one-on-one. The Vikings are running a nicely crafted man-beater concept: A pair of crossing routes at 10-yards, with an Adam Thielen double-move following in-behind deeper down the field. The goal is to stress the middle of the field, to have one of the two crossers pop free thanks to a natural pick, or for the intersecting routes to obscure so much that Thielen can come clean once he breaks back to the post.
Timing or path – those are Okudah’s options. He opts for neither. It’s an inside release, and Jefferson is away before Okudah can get a hand up. Then it’s a speed and navigation test. Jefferson can navigate the clutter, Okudah cannot. Easy yards.
Keep on rolling through the tape and the same issue pops up. Here is Okudah up against Devante Adams, the finest route-runner in the league.
Getting into a dancing contest with Adams is silly, nobody can compete with those feet.
You know the deal: Timing or path. Again, Okudah opted for neither. He didn’t initiate contact. He didn’t try to point Adams in any direction. He stood, square on, and allowed the game’s top receiver to dictate the possession.
Adams squared Okudah up and then broke sharp to the middle of the field, dusting Okudah on his way to an easy 15-yard pickup.
Okudah rarely, if ever, set the terms of engagement. There was no bumping. No building an inside wall. No threat that if a receiver came into his area within the first five yards, they would have to earn it. Okudah simply sagged off and opened the door, offering a tidy one-to-two-yard cushion, gambling that he could make the difference up with his closing speed.
He couldn’t. In the NFL, that one to two yards is the entire ball game.
There are seeds of potential. Okudah showed some signs of life on out-to-in looks when he could run a receiver towards some middle-of-the-field help. His speed remains a serious asset. Against some top draw receivers that were cranking through the gears, he was able to coast in second. That matters.
Yet it’s all so one-dimensional. On quick-breaking, in-to-out stuff, he was a disaster. He looked lost in the slot.
The never-ending delay is a concern that Glenn and co. will need to work on. On slow-developing plays, he remains flat-footed. You could be forgiven for thinking your internet went down or the video was broken. There he sits… waiting… waiting…
Look at where Okudah is in relation to the field as TY Hilton makes his break on the above play.
That looks fine. And at first blush, it looks like Okudah is able to get in-phase with the receiver before shepherding Hilton towards his help. But on a second viewing, you’re able to see how Hilton is really flying while Okudah is just starting to rev up. As Hilton plants to make his secondary move, Okudah has no shot at keeping up.
Hilton bends his route out, moving towards Okudah’s help. Had Hilton shot across the field, however, Okudah would have been out of the play altogether, relying on his safety to keep up and bail him out, all because he failed to get out of the blocks on time.
Patience in a corner is admirable. And it can work if you have safety help or it’s paired with great instincts or recognition – Josh Norman made a career out of his patience and route anticipation. But for Okudah, so far, at least, it has been about hope and luck. He’s not reading or jumping anything. He’s just waiting… and waiting… and waiting.
He just hasn’t has shown a knack for when to break or an understanding of the geometry of the field. Sitting and skulking is cool, so long as you understand exactly when to break, and you have enough of a sense of your opponent and the route concept that you can close the space in time. Sitting and observing and gifting a three-yard cushion isn’t patience, it’s a disaster.
It goes back to route recognition, something the new staff has already been at pains to point out to the young corner. “The release tells you the route,” Glenn told The Athletic, relaying a conversation he had with Okudah. “Stop thinking about all these routes. Stop thinking about everything.”
In year two, the Lions’ new staff will be banking on the flashes that Okudah showed when he was able to get his hands on opponents at the line of scrimmage.
Detroit’s new setup will bring a bunch of press coverage. With the Saints, Glenn’s defense (led by Dennis Allen with Glenn as an assistant), ran the 10th highest percentage of man-coverage in the league in 2020, finishing fifth in expected points added (EPA) per play on split safety looks.
Two-man (two-deep safeties with man-coverage underneath) will be base – the Saints ran more two-man than any defense in the NFL in 2020. That should offer Okudah plenty of opportunities to put his limbs and legs to use, either guiding receivers towards his inside help or using the boundary as his friend.
The Lions played in limited looks last year and got torched. The same static, limited ideas could lead to growth this season, provided the Lions’ front-seven can hold up well enough for Glenn to stick in a two-deep shell.
Stop thinking. Start playing. That’s been Glenn’s message. “Just think about being disruptive at the line of scrimmage,” he told The Athletic.
It’s not rocket science. But it doesn’t really need to be complicated. Push Okudah up to the line and give him enough support behind, that’s the Lions best shot to get something out of the young corner this season.
Yet this all feels like discussing a developmental prospect, like the kind of long-term project the Seahawks would take on with a fifth or sixth-round pick. We’re discussing the third overall pick in the draft, folks!
Top-five picks are not supposed to be so one-dimensional. If they are, a team is supposed to put a plan in place to maximize that dimension while the player adds the other facets to their game. No surprise here: The Lions screwed up the development of a highly rated draft prospect.
Being paired with Glenn is a fortunate fit for Okudah. If it isn’t going to work in a press-heavy, two-high system with a DC focused on cornerback development, then it was unlikely to ever work.
Some young players grow in increments, using one skill to unlock another. For some, it never clicks. Okudah has to rebuild his game from the ground up.
It’s going to be a long climb.