Monday, October 2 2023

The Atlanta Falcons continued a busy month of actively upgrading their defense Tuesday, sending a fifth-round pick to the Lions for cornerback Jeff Okudah.

Okudah, 24, was the third overall pick in the 2020 draft. He had 73 tackles last season in 15 starts after totaling only 10 games in his first two seasons. The Falcons will take on the final year of his rookie contract, paying him $5.2 million, and will have to quickly make a decision on a more significant commitment, whether to exercise a fifth-year option for 2024 at a cost of about $11.5 million guaranteed.

The Falcons have one strong starter at cornerback in A.J. Terrell, another 2020 first-round pick, and Okudah will compete with veteran Casey Hayward, 33, on the opposite side. He could be a fifth new defensive starter added in the past month, joining defensive end Calais Campbell, defensive tackle David Onyemata, linebacker Kaden Elliss and safety Jessie Bates. Atlanta also has a new defensive coordinator in Ryan Nielsen, who took over after Dean Pees retired.

Can a fresh start bring better play for Okudah? The 6-foot-1, 205-pound corner has two interceptions in 25 career games, and was rated as the NFL’s No. 77 corner (out of 81) by Pro Football Focus last season. He was a coveted draft prospect three years ago coming out of Ohio State, as the first defensive back taken in a hit-and-miss draft class. He was limited by hamstring and abdominal injuries his rookie year and missed all but one game in his second season due to a torn Achilles tendon, but came back healthy last year.

Atlanta’s defensive overhaul was much needed, as the Falcons ranked 27th in total defense last season, also ranking in the league’s bottom 10 in passing defense (25th), interception percentage (24th) and scoring defense (23rd). The Falcons finished 7-10, but only one game out of first place in the NFC South, which will again be very much up for grabs in 2023.

The pick the Falcons sent to the Lions was the selection they received from the Jaguars for receiver Calvin Ridley, who missed the 2022 season while under suspension. Atlanta entered the offseason with about $67 million in available salary-cap space, second-most out of 32 teams, and the Falcons have been among the league’s most active spenders in free agency.

The trade makes it all the more likely that Atlanta uses its first-round pick — No. 8 overall — on an edge rusher, having ranked last in the league in sacks over the past two seasons. The Falcons have been vocal in their support for second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder, who is expected to be their 2023 starter after a four-game debut during his rookie season. The expected demand for quarterbacks at the top of the draft should mean at least three if not four passers go in the seven picks ahead of the Falcons, giving them an impact pass-rusher or perhaps their pick of the offensive linemen in the draft.


The Lions’ perspective

If there was any doubt the Lions were going to target a cornerback with one of their first picks in the 2023 NFL Draft, I have to think it went out the window and down to Atlanta.

This immediately offloads over $5 million from Detroit’s cap, which is what Okudah was guaranteed in 2023. Detroit now has the second-most cap space in the league thanks to ridding themselves of Okudah’s contract and Okudah himself gets a fresh start.

The Lions hold both the sixth and 18th overall picks in the first round. Their first four picks are all in the top 55. It means they have a ton of options when it comes to filling their need for a lockdown corner — what they thought Okudah could have been. At six, it’s very possible one of the draft’s top two corners in Devon Witherspoon and Christian Gonzalez are gone, and highly unlikely both are off the board.

Witherspoon could reunite with former college teammate Kerby Joseph in Detroit. Joseph had immediate success in his rookie season, even picking off Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers twice in a single game and three times overall last season.

In fact, multiple rookies thrived within the Detroit defense last year. Second overall pick Aidan Hutchinson led the team in sacks with 9.5. He was followed by sixth-round pick James Houston, who had eight sacks in seven games played. If any staff knows how to get production out of young players, it seems to be Detroit’s. 

They’ll need to be, given the state of their secondary currently. Jerry Jacobs held his own in eight games started for the team in his second year. Another step forward for him could help round out a rotation that now includes veterans Cameron Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley. They were Detroit’s splash signings of free agency and at 28 and 27, respectively, they’re now the leaders of the cornerback room. But the Lions still sorely need depth. That’s where perhaps Witherspoon or Gonzalez could come in, and where the teams’ priorities now lie.

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.  

Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.

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