OSU's Jeffrey Okudah: Pairing with Lions' Darius Slay would be 'magical'

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Indianapolis — When it comes to the Detroit Lions' secondary entering the 2020 season, there are a lot of balls still up in the air.

We don't know what the future holds for three-time Pro Bowl corner Darius Slay, who the team has admitted is on the trading block, but has also not ruled out the possibility of a contract extension. And there's also a good chance the Lions go shopping for a starter in either free-agency, such as Dallas' Byron Jones, or in the draft, where the position is loaded in talent. 

Ohio State defensive back Jeff Okudah speaks during a news conference at the NFL Combine on Friday.

In fact, most prognosticators believe the Lions are primed to select Ohio State's Jeffrey Okudah in the first round, whether they stick with the No. 3 pick or trade back a few spots with a QB-needy team like the Miami Dolphins. 

And in all that uncertainty, it remains realistic the Lions enter next season with both Slay and Okudah, playing opposite each other. That's something the Ohio State product has thought about leading up the draft. 

"I think it would be magical," Okudah said during his NFL Combine media session Friday. "I think it would be really tough for that division." 

At the Super Bowl, Slay acknowledged he had already connected with Okudah via text messages, something that has been meaningful to the young prospect. 

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"It's big, because in high school, college, I'm always watching Darius Slay, trying to emulate the things he does," Okudah said. "He's a great player. He plays with great technique and he makes amazing plays. His nickname is Big Play Slay.

"How much better does it get than that? Just being able to reach out to him, talk to him, use him as a resource really, I think it shows what kind of guy he is because he doesn't have to talk to me, honestly."

But if there was one thing to take away from Okudah's session Friday, it's that everyone wants to talk to him. He's the prototype for the position, the coveted cover corner with the complete package of height, length, speed and instincts. He's a player every NFL team is desperate to have in this pass-happy era. 

Even before participating in a single on-field drill, Okudah is racking up wins at the event. Several receivers have already called him the best player they faced in college and Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden, never one to shy away from hyperbole, didn't spare it during a sit-down meeting with Okudah. 

"I'm talking football with Jon Gruden and he says, 'Hey, man, are you from planet Earth?'" Okudah said. 

Ohio State's Jeffrey Okudah plays to the crowd.

During his official measurements, Okudah landed another victory when his wing span checked in at 78 5/8 inches, the longest among all defensive backs. 

And about those on-field drills, Okudah intends to do them all.

In a year where so many other prospects are pulling out, saving themselves for the more-controlled environment of their pro days, Okudah is eager to challenge himself against the top performers of the past. 

"Right now, in my apartment, I have a white board on my wall with Patrick Peterson and Jalen Ramsey's numbers on there," Okudah said. "My thing is just about putting my numbers up with theirs, and on top of that, going into the field work, showing really good footwork, really loose hips and putting that on film.

"I want somebody down the road to say, "Let me turn on Jeff Okudah's combine video.'"

Okudah could sit out everything and he'd still be a top-10 pick. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say his film from last year is ridiculous. In coverage, he didn't allow his assignment to top 50 yards in his final 27 games. And he's versatile. He has shown he can play man or zone and that he can cover outside or slide inside to shadow a slot receiver.

His biggest question mark entering last season was his ability to intercept passes and he answered that by altering his style of play and picking off three in 2019. 

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"My first two years at Ohio State, I played through the hands," Okudah said. "It was leading to pass interferences, when balls were underthrown, they'd come back through you. It was just a lot of awkward things. That last year, I really worked on looking for the football. Every day, we just drilled it religiously. Looking back for the ball, it caused, like I said, I had zero pass interferences and I didn't give up any deep balls."

On top of it all, Okudah is a student of the game. His in-depth knowledge of the league began at an early age, through the Madden video game series and watching SportsCenter. That's carried over to watching film. Beyond Slay, Okudah has invested time into studying many of the league's top cornerbacks, detailing the elements from their games he's trying to poach and incorporate into his own. 

"I like watching how (Richard) Sherman understands route concepts," Okudah said. "I like watching Patrick Peterson's consistency in his technique, Jalen Ramsey's feel for his physicality, his aggressiveness. I like watching Stephon Gilmore switch up his leverage every time."

Jeffrey Okudah

Okudah is also in tune with the cornerback situations for the teams selecting at the top of the draft. He knows Washington recently released Josh Norman, the Giants drafted a corner in the first round last year and that Slay's situation in Detroit is in flux. Okudah even went as deep as to name drop Detroit's fifth-round pick from last season, Amani Oruwariye. 

He also knows how he'd fit in Detroit's scheme. 

"(Matt) Patricia, I know he's a heavy man-to-man guy," Okudah said. "Comes from the Patriots, they run a lot of man-to-man."

Okudah will have his chance to impress Patricia on Saturday night, when he has a formal interview with the Lions, and again on Sunday, when he'll presumably tear up the on-field drills. 

Barring any hiccups, Okudah will remain the favorite to be Detroit's first-round draft pick. Whether we'll get that magical pairing with Slay, time will only tell.


Twitter: @Justin_Rogers