'Crazy feeling': Detroit Lions stay at No. 3, draft CB Jeff Okudah

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Sometimes the answer is obvious.

After a day filled with trade speculation, Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn didn't field an offer he liked. Staying put at No. 3, the team did exactly what most expected them to do in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft Thursday night, selecting Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah with the No. 3 pick. 

Jeff Okudah

"It was a feeling I can't explain," Okudah said. "All the hard work, all the sacrifices, finally getting a chance to hear my name called, it was really something I'll remember forever." 

This marks the third time in four years a Buckeye was the first cornerback taken in the draft, joining Denzel Ward in 2018 and Marshon Lattimore in 2017. Along with Eli Apple in 2016, all four were selected in the first 12 picks.

It’s rare for cornerbacks to be selected in the top-five in recent decades. The last time one was taken in the first three picks was 1997, when the Seattle Seahawks grabbed Shawn Springs at No. 3.  

"It's a crazy feeling being drafted that high," Okudah said. "Obviously, the Detroit Lions obviously think a lot about me and I think it's up to me to return that and give them all that I have and go to work every single day with my teammates and be the best player I can be."

Despite not having experience drafting that high in the his career, Quinn said last week he didn’t understand why teams avoided corners at the top of the draft.

“I’m not sure why teams have shied away,” Quinn said. “Honestly, I don’t. I think it’s obviously critical and has high value in the league. Really, when you look at corners, basically you have three corners that are starters in professional football now. We go back to free agency a year ago, we signed Justin Coleman to play nickel and we paid him like a starter because we feel like you need three starting level corners to have a productive defense.”

Quinn similarly bucked draft trends a year ago when he took a tight end, Iowa's T.J. Hockenson, inside the top-10.  

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In Detroit, Okudah softens the departure of Darius Slay, who was traded to Philadelphia for a pair of picks last month. An irreparable rift with coach Matt Patricia and Slay’s desire to become the highest-paid cornerback in football at the age of 29 were the major factors in the divorce.

Okudah, a unanimous All-American in 2019, figures to immediately step into a starting role with the Lions, playing opposite free-agent addition Desmond Trufant.

"I know he’s been a really successful corner in the NFL for a while," Okudah said about his new teammate. "Actually, I want to get with him, I want to learn his process, his routine. I’m going to be around him a lot, so I’m going to try to soak up everything that he knows, things that he wishes that he could have done differently and kind of use his trials and testimony to maybe help myself avoid going through the same things."

Similarly, Okudah has been in touch with several of the league's top defensive backs through the pre-draft process, including Slay, Jalen Ramsey, Stephon Gilmore and Tyrann Mathieu, hoping to be better prepared as a rookie. 

"Pretty much learning their process, learning what they had done earlier that they wish they had done differently and just kind of getting a feel about what the NFL is all about," Okudah said."

Okudah has drawn comparisons to Gilmore, who has thrived in New England working in a similar defensive scheme as the one run in Detroit under Patricia.

Known for being sticky in man-to-man coverage, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Okudah allowed just 27 passes to be completed against him on 58 targets (46.6 percent) for 282 yards and one touchdown last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Additionally, he quelled concerns about his ability to make plays on the ball, intercepting three passes, while breaking up another nine.

“My first two years at Ohio State, I played through the hands," Okudah said at the combine. "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."

Okudah is the first cornerback the Lions have drafted in the first round since Terry Fair in 1998. 

Prior to Detroit's selection, the Cincinnati Bengals drafted LSU quarterback Joe Burrow with the first pick and Washington followed up by taking Ohio State defensive end Chase Young No. 2 overall. 

The unique virtual draft format this year included NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announcing picks from the basement of his home in Bronxville, N.Y., while the event opened with a message from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and one of the country's leading voices during the  pandemic.