The Times examines the top prospects ahead of the NFL draft, to be held August 23-25.
Over the past two decades, as the value of shutdown cover men skyrocketed and salaries soared accordingly, the pass-happy NFL has been surprisingly conservative when it comes to selecting cornerbacks at the top of the draft. Just three have been drafted in the top five this decade. Just three in NFL history have been drafted in the top three.
Jeff Okudah is primed to be an exception to that rule. That’s how good the Ohio State cornerback was in his lone season as a full-time starter. If the Detroit Lions stay put with the third overall pick, Okudah could be the first cornerback since Shawn Springs in 1997 to enter that rarefied air.
Those are lofty expectations to place on a cornerback whose first collegiate interception came last September. But the former blue-chip high school prospect and collegiate All-American has welcomed that pressure since February, when he first copied the combine numbers of Patrick Peterson and Jalen Ramsey onto a whiteboard in his apartment, with the intention of besting both.
He already had copied bits and pieces from the corners, combining their skills with characteristics of other elite cover men in hopes of molding himself into the kind of cornerback NFL scouts might design in a lab.
“I like watching how Richard Sherman understands real concepts,” Okudah said. “I like watching Patrick Peterson's consistency and his technique. Jalen Ramsey's physicality, his aggressiveness. I watch how Stephon Gilmore switches up his leverage every time to break the quarterback.”
Those four cornerbacks have combined for 19 Pro Bowl appearances. They’re also the company Okudah expects to keep in short order.
Before you dismiss that possibility, consider the raw tools. The 6-foot-1 Ohio State product boasts prototype size. He jumped higher (41 inches) and farther (135 inches) than any other defensive back at the combine. If it weren’t for a nasty fall during drills that ended his workout early, he probably would’ve put up more tantalizing numbers.
Those measurables are why Okudah was considered a top prospect before he’d secured top billing in Ohio State’s secondary. But it’s the improvements he has made elsewhere this past season that assured his place among the best prospects in this draft.
Okudah drilled footwork until it was near-perfect. He learned how to play in the slot, holding Penn State’s KJ Hamler to one of his worst games of the season. He worked on retooling his hand placement and responded with nine pass break-ups and three interceptions, one of which he secured while lying flat on his back.
“Just something to add to your resume,” he said. “I put that on tape.”
That resume, might not be all that long yet, but the tape should be enough to assure Okudah is one of the highest-drafted corners in league history.