'No hard feelings': Falcons' Jeff Okudah ready for return to Detroit

The Detroit Lions traded cornerback Jeff Okudah to the Atlanta Falcons for a fifth-round pick in this year's draft. The Lions drafted Okudah with the No. 3 overall pick in 2020. Alex Slitz/AP Photo

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When Jeff Okudah was traded to the Atlanta Falcons earlier this year, he didn’t realize they would be playing the Detroit Lions. Let alone in Detroit.

And the schedule hadn’t come out, so he didn’t know it’d be the first road game for Atlanta, either. And yet, Okudah is heading back to Ford Field, where he spent the first three years of his career, and he’s at least curious about it all.

“I think as a competitor, you naturally have a game like this circled,” Okudah said. “The environment is going to be a crazy environment.

“So, I mean, I can’t wait.”

Okudah is not a lock to play yet -- he injured his foot in August and has been inactive through the first two weeks, although he was a full practice participant for the first time since the injury Wednesday. If he does, it will be the first time he’s ever faced a team he once played for.

Okudah was the third pick in the 2020 draft by the Lions, making him the highest cornerback taken since Shawn Springs in 1997. He played in nine games as a rookie with six starts and one interception in the last year of the Matt Patricia regime before a groin injury ended his season.

He started the season opener the following year -- with Dan Campbell taking over as head coach -- and ruptured his left Achilles in the fourth quarter of the first game. A year later he returned, starting 15 games and having his second career interception.

It was the most football he’d played since Ohio State in 2019 and believed it was something to build on. Three months and three days after the Lions season ended, Okudah was traded to the Falcons.

“In retrospect, I have to think of it in retrospect, I wouldn’t say I felt indifferent about it, but in retrospect I’m just really glad to be here,” Okudah said. “So I guess you could say it worked well for both sides.”

He still talks with old Detroit teammates and says now he has “no hard feelings, honestly.” It’s not a message the Falcons coaches are necessarily telling Okudah, but his defensive backs coach, Jerry Gray, made it clear he had to get rid of the past.

Last week, Gray said Okudah needed to clear both physical and mental hurdles before he gets on the field, as any player coming back from injury would. He wanted to see him handle things well in practice, too.

Gray said Okudah shouldn’t worry about revenge if he does play Sunday.

“You have to fight that. You have to fight the ‘I want to get revenge,’ and stuff like that, because it doesn’t work,” Gray said. “If you get revenge and you lose, guess what? You hurt the team and you lose.

“So if he’s thinking about the other 10 guys that he’s out there playing with, it won’t be so much about him, it’ll be about the Atlanta Falcons and what we’re going to do on Sunday.”

Okudah has taken it all with a positive approach, saying whether it was in Detroit or Atlanta this year, he would put his most positive effort forward.

He learned a lot in Detroit, from dealing with injuries to a coaching switch to more losses than wins, which he didn’t experience at Ohio State. He considers his time in Detroit “a lot of lessons learned,” things he’s used to drive him now.

One of the biggest lessons: Stay level and know “things can change in a moment.” And he handled it by changing how he thought.

“You kind of get rid of that utopia mindset that things will always go perfect and try to just take things as they come,” Okudah said. “In this game there’s a lot of competitors so things might not always go your way so it’s just how you respond, how you bounce back from all that.”

Okudah had hoped to have a couple games by now, but like so much in his career there’s been minor setbacks. But if he plays Sunday, in the place he called home for three years, that would be the beginning of his latest response.