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Okudah remained close to team during injury rehab, 'hungry' to return in 2022

Cornerback Jeff Okudah spent his first real NFL offseason last year following his rookie season rehabbing from core muscle surgery, while also trying to take the next step in his development after an up and down and injury-filled rookie campaign.

Finally healthy, Okudah had a strong training camp and preseason, and 2021 was looking like it was going to be bright for him.

So watching Okudah sitting on the Ford Field turf grabbing at his left foot just 48 snaps into his second season was tough. The diagnosis came back as a ruptured Achilles tendon, and for a second straight year, Okudah's season ended prematurely.

When a player suffers an injury as significant as Okudah's, there's often a mental hurdle they have to overcome on top of the physical one. To help with that, Okudah tried to be around Allen Park and his teammates as much he could.

"He reached out to me a couple of times just about wanting to be around the team and still feel like he was a part of it," head coach Dan Campbell said of Okudah. "And, he's been up here rehabbing, he's been working. And look, he's hungry."

Lions general manager Brad Holmes said it was tough for him to watch Okudah get hurt because Holmes thought Okudah was in such a good place both mentally and physically at the time of the injury. But Holmes said Okudah is on schedule with his rehab and the hope is he comes back in an even better spot physically and mentally this time around.

"Jeff is doing a nice job in his rehab," Holmes said. "What I love about him is he wanted to stay engaged and be around as much as possible. We expect Jeff to be back with us. I know that he's right on track and in a good spot."

Okudah was spotted mid-year off to the side of practice following the action with the help of a scooter. Later in the year, having ditched the scooter, Okudah was tossing the football around and walking around lending advice here and there to some of the young players trying to fill his shoes.

"I mean, he's ready to go. He's already – he's ready to take the next step into his rehab and physically get ready to hit the offseason running," Campbell said. "It's good. Look, it's one of those unfortunate things where injury has struck again, but all you can do is try to come back better than ever and have yourself 100 percent ready to go. And so look, he's of the right mindset. That's all you can ask for in a player."

The hope is Okudah comes back from the injury better than ever and motivated to finally make his mark two years after being the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL Draft. If he does, the Lions are expected to have some great depth and good competition this offseason at cornerback.

Amani Oruwariye has kind of cemented his status as a starter after a breakout 2021 season that saw him finish third in the league with six interceptions. AJ Parker will have a leg up on the nickel spot after starting there all year as a rookie, but the other outside spot could get interesting with Okudah, Ifeatu Melifonwu and Jerry Jacobs (when he returns from a torn ACL suffered in early December) all vying for the job. And that doesn't include any free agents or draft picks the Lions add to the roster before the start of OTAs and training camp.

"I'm so excited for next year for him, because I saw him work with a purpose and with a mentality last offseason to set himself up for the season," Oruwariye said of Okudah. "To see him go down like that was just heartbreaking. I feel for him and I'm just excited for his future. I can't wait to see because it's been two years and people still don't know what Jeff Okudah can do. I've seen it."

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