After Week 1, I broke down how impressed I was by Jacksonville Jaguars rookie cornerback C.J. Henderson in his first week of NFL action. What made it so noteworthy was not only how well Henderson was able to cover some of the best receivers the Indianapolis Colts had to offer, but also the confidence he was able to exude in his first day on the job.
There were plenty who joined me in the praise of Henderson’s start to his career, but of course, there were those who immediately went to their draft takes, gloating that they knew they were right for putting Henderson over the cornerback who went ahead of him in the 2020 NFL Draft, Jeff Okudah.
The funniest part about that was that Okudah didn’t even play in Week 1 due to injury.
Here we are with three weeks in the books and Okudah has gotten his NFL career off the ground with now two games under his belt. Okudah, like Henderson, has already recorded the first interception of his career, coming last week in his matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. But there hasn’t been the same kind of outward praise for Okudah like there was for Henderson. So I decided to put Okudah’s Week 3 tape under the microscope to see how the young corner fared beyond the box score in order to properly assess where he currently is as a player versus the talent evaluation and potential ceiling discussed during draft season.
Here’s the first play I wanted to point out. It was the very first play of the game for Okudah. I didn’t clip this because of the result or the coverage, but rather, the pre-snap mannerisms from Okudah.
I love Okudah’s energy in the pre-snap here. He was on his toes, fluid, was communicating both verbally and physically with the other players on the defense as the coverage had to adjust to the pre-snap motion, and was in good form at the snap. You could tell just by the way he was moving that he was both focused and energized.
Those are such little things, but I feel like they are foundational habits that were good signs from what you can expect from Okudah as a player. His passion and drive is hard to hide. Not every player loves football the way Okudah does. You can tell that very quickly—he loves football.
As the game slows down for him the more he plays, it will be natural building blocks like that which accelerate his impact.
Now to the breakdown, this was the first pass thrown Okudah’s way from the opening drive.
Okudah was tasked with guarding Arizona Cardinals’ All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins. That’s a tough ask for any cornerback, let alone a rookie playing in just his second game. For how the Lions like to play aggressive with Cover 3 and Cover 1 as their base coverage deployments, that stacked things even more against expectation for the defensive back. But Okudah has the quick feet, the long arms, and the long speed to handle even the best receivers in press-man coverage—though experience is what is needed to really wrap all that together.
Okudah actually played Hopkins well in the clip above, but when Hopkins turned his head to start to look for the ball, Okudah thought that meant the ball was coming that second. So when his head turned, his feet stopped moving. You like that Okudah was quick to get his head around—this is a habit that helps with both avoiding penalties as well as force takeaways—but he can’t get out-worked like that with his arms and his legs. He has to still be able to feel Hopkins as he looks for the ball
I like where his head was at (literally), he just didn’t time it right.
The play above is what many people likely considered Okdah’s worst coverage play of the day when watching it live on the broadcast. But after watching it back, I’m not so sure it was his fault.
Fellow cornerback Tracy Walker following Cardinals wide receiver Andy Isabella in motion pre-snap tipped the man coverage with a single high safety in the deep middle. Okudah’s original assignment on this play was Hopkins. But as Walker motioned across the defense to his new spot, he did a little hand signal with Okudah. From the way Walker acted post-snap, I assume he was trying to signal that, with Walker up in press coverage and on the inside, he was going to take Hopkins, who he could get in press, as Hopkins was on the line of scrimmage. That would have left Okudah to cover Isabella.
But Okudah got all turned around and started that play as if he was still keying in on Hopkins. I’m not sure what the communication adjustment there was, so I can’t for sure say this is a bad rep on Okudah. But it does look like Isabella should have been Okudah’s man after the adjustment.
A big reason why I was so impressed with Henderson’s Week 1 performance was his confidence. Neither the game speed nor the matchup in front of him seemed to phase him, and he was able to stay aggressive throughout the game.
The play above is one of a few examples throughout this game where Okudah was playing too much on his heels or guessing more than you’d like. You could tell that all game he continued to tell himself to not get beat deep, and against a master of the position like Hopkins, that can leave you exposed to some quick movements, whether with the hands or the feet, and a lot of underneath success.
To me, that’s much more of a “just doesn’t have the reps under his belt yet” than any kind of player flaw.
Here’s another example of Okudah really not wanting to get beat deep.
The play above appears to be a Cover 4 deployment, which means Okudah does have some help deep, but he is responsible for not letting Hopkins get past him at the sideline. That is priority No. 1 for him in his head; you can see that. He does not want to be the reason the Lions lose the game because Hopkins gets behind him. You can see from how much cushion he gives Hopkins to start the first steps of the play, and in the fact that when Hopkins turns on the route, Okudah is still shuffling back.
I continued to notice throughout the game that Okudah was giving a lot of cushion to Hopkins when he was in Cover 3, Cover 4, or even in off-man coverage in Cover 1. I think that cushion will get smaller and smaller (which is ideal) the more confidence he gains. As that cushion gets smaller, so does the space between him and attacking the ball to make a play.
This is the last example of some of the hesitancy Okudah is playing with, and how you can tell he’s thinking too much right now.
In the play above, Okudah was lined up in man coverage against Hopkins. As the offense first settled in, Okudah was covering Hopkins as the No. 1 to his side of the field. But when the running back Chase Edmonds motioned out from the backfield to the sideline, Hopkins became the No. 2 and was then aligned as a slot. Okudah then adjusted his pre-snap alignment and took a few steps back from his press coverage technique, only to be told by the outside defender that he needed to remain inside and close to Hopkins to get physical with him and not let him free off the line (as Hopkins now had the option for a two-way go).
Okudah then fidgeted a bit before getting close to Hopkins again, and when the ball was snapped, Okudah’s first instinct was to retreat. That immediately gave Hopkins space and separation, all because of the hesitancy of Okudah.
To me, that’s another confidence hint. It was one of those plays where Okudah was thinking so hard on what exactly he was supposed to do he wasn’t relaxed enough to just line up and play the man. When those adjustments and techniques become more natural the more games he plays, we won’t see plays like the one above.
Part of why I have no reservations about Okudah’s confidence, at this time, is due to how strong he was in run support and when tackling (times when he could just turn his brain off and play). For the most part, Okudah flew in for tackles with no fear and with good technique (minus the Kyler Murray touchdown run where Okudah once again clearly just got in his own head).
This was his best rep of the day in that area. When the light went off in Okudah’s head to recognize something, he showed flashes of play speed to go make the plays. It’s just a matter of that light coming on a tick sooner in some of his coverage reps.
Here’s another example to emphasize Okudah’s natural energy on a play. He had to run across the entire field to make sure Isabella didn’t get the chance to turn up the sideline, and Okudah was there the second Isabella tried to.
That was a hell of a pursuit play, and it shows what kind of play speed and aggressiveness Okudah can play with when he’s not thinking so hard and is focused on going after his assignment.
Later in the game, Okudah nabbed the first interception of his career. Shown in the play above, he was once again in man coverage against Hopkins, but this time all that cushion he gave Hopkins worked to his advantage.
Watch how fast Okudah’s feet were moving in his backpedal, and then see how quickly he was able to put his foot in the ground and immediately change direction to trail Hopkins and close the window of separation Hopkins had from his cut in the route. Eventually, he got close enough to capitalize on a poorly thrown ball by Murray.
That was a good display of the kind of athlete Okudah can be.
Here’s the final play I wanted to point to recapping Okudah’s day versus Arizona.
In it, he was in off-man coverage against Hopkins. Okudah once again gave Hopkins a good amount of cushion at the snap, but as the play developed he took an aggressive angle to Hopkins as he broke on his route for the quick out. Murray didn’t look that way, but if he did, he might have given that route a chance due to how off Okudah had been playing all day, and Okudah would have made them pay if they did.
Most of those plays were in chronological order for the game. My final assessment was that Okudah is going through the expected growing pains of a first-year cornerback going against the other team’s top receiver each week—Hopkins being one of the best made that especially tough. But even if you can tell he’s trying to remember a lot of things at once at a very high speed, and that makes him less aggressive in his coverage approach (which then yields catches), Okudah plays with a ton of energy and quickness, gives you flashes of high-quality top speed, and right now shows a solid baseline as a player who is building a foundation for improvement through these tough assignments, not exposing a player drowning at NFL speeds.
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