On Monday, Detroit Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah returned to the practice field for the first time since suffering his Achilles injury back in Week 1 of the regular season. Though his participation level is still unknown, it is undoubtedly a big step in his rehabilitation from one of the most serious injuries in football. Rehabilitation sometimes takes over a year, and many players never return to form once they return.
And for Okudah, it’s not just about proving he can recover from a devastating injury, he still very much has to prove himself on the field. The former third overall pick struggled in his rookie season and didn’t get a chance to display any improvement last year, as the injury robbed him of nearly his entire second season.
That has naturally brought out many skeptics of Okudah in Detroit. Fairly or unfairly, the word “bust” has been thrown around, seeing as the third overall pick has provided the Lions with nothing discernably positive in two years on the field.
While that’s a perfectly reasonable take to have, one of Okudah’s teammates warns not to bury his career before it’s over. Amani Oruwariye saw some of the work Okudah was putting in last offseason and he saw the progress that never made it to the regular season. Last week, he wanted to remind people of the potential that is just waiting to be realized.
“I think people who try to write people off, they’ve got to just kinda stay in your lane, because to me, I think there’s a reason he went number three overall in the draft,” Oruwariye said. “The minute he gets on the field, he can make an immediate impact.”
If that happens, it would be huge for the Lions. Last year, Detroit had one of the worst pass defenses in the league, and their cornerback situation is one of the most unclear positions both for the present and the future. As of now, Oruwariye is the only clear starter, and he’s in the final year of his contract. At this point, Okudah, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Jerry Jacobs, and even Mike Hughes are relatively young, unknown commodities. If Okukah can somehow reach his potential this year or next, the Lions will have suddenly filled one of the biggest holes on their defensive roster.
But staying healthy is no guarantee, and even Oruwariye admitted that’s the first goal for Okudah.
“I’ve always told him, ‘You’ve developed so much just from the time I’ve seen you. I can’t wait to see how much you develop when you put up a full 16 games together,’” Oruwariye said. “I think he can’t wait. He’s excited. It’s just a matter of staying healthy and we’re all wishing for that.”
Getting on the field was the first big step in the right direction for Okudah, but there is plenty of work still ahead. Following his growth and recovery will be one of the most intriguing storylines this offseason.