Seeing as it appears Detroit Lions fans will have to focus most of their optimism for this team on the future—and not the present—it’s time we take a closer look at their rookie class and how they’ve progressed through their first season in the NFL.
The Lions drafted nine players in the 2020 NFL Draft class, seven of whom could play some meaningful snaps for the team this year. It has only been two weeks, but we’ve already seen six of them see real playing time on their respective side of the ball. So each week, we’re going to take a closer look at their individual performances to see the kind of player they may have in the future.
Let’s dive deeper into Sunday’s game against the Green Bay Packers, and see how the rookies managed in the team’s first away game of the season.
1. Jeff Okudah (third overall pick)
All eyes were on Okudah, as he stepped in to take his first NFL action as the starting cornerback opposite Amani Oruwariye. Unfortunately, it looked like the kid just isn’t quite ready yet. Aaron Rodgers picked him apart to the tune of nine targets and six catches (according to The Athletic—PFF had him at an even worse seven catches on 10 targets).
Even worse was his PFF grade:
Jeff Okudah with a team-worst 28.6 grade from PFF in his NFL debut, they have the rookie allowing seven catches on 10 targets in coverage for 121 yards.— Benjamin Raven (@BenjaminSRaven) September 21, 2020
Even Lions head coach Matt Patricia, who would normally try to paint as optimistic of a picture of his own players, had a tough time saying anything positive about Okudah’s performance.
“It’s hard to take a look at yesterday’s game and really think that there was anybody that obviously stood out in a positive way from that aspect,” Patricia said. “I think there’s a lot of plays on the field that we all need to do a better job of, including Jeff. I think he did a good job of playing within the game and certainly there’s some plays out there that we would like him to do better than he did yesterday and improve on.”
I think there may be a compliment in there somewhere?
Welcome to the NFL, Jeff Okudah pic.twitter.com/qOycpvLvjX— Matt Schneidman (@mattschneidman) September 21, 2020
It was an ugly debut, there’s really no getting around that. But with the shortened offseason—made even shorter by a hamstring injury Okudah dealt with—early struggles were expected. Hell, look at some of the other guys Lions fans wanted to draft instead of Okudah:
Just for fun.— Pets of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) September 21, 2020
Notable PFF grades of rookies through 2 weeks:
Derrick Brown: 29.9
Isaiah Simmons: 28.4
Jeff Okudah: 29.6
In other words, y'all gotta chill.
Let’s try to be patient here.
2. D’Andre Swift (Round 2, Pick 3)
After last week’s heartbreaking drop, it’s encouraging to see that Swift caught all five passes thrown his way for 60 yards. Plus, he did this:
The Georgia running back still hasn’t truly showed his big play potential—his longest play from scrimmage is 17 yards—and the Lions his rushing stats leave plenty to be desired (eight carries, 20 yards). But with Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson looking decent enough in the running game, there is no reason to rush Swift along.
One underappreciated aspect of Swift’s game, as the team’s third-down back thus far, he’s been an excellent pass protector. His 82.4 PFF pass blocking grade is excellent and right there with Kerryon Johnson (84.4).
3. Julian Okwara (Round 3, Pick 3)
Okwara was healthy scratch in Week 2 against the Packers. Here was Patricia’s reasoning:
“Obviously, we’re trying to put everybody out on the field there that we needed based on some of the injuries that we had and the positions that we needed for special teams, offense and defense, and sometimes that’s just how the numbers work.”
Okwara was a little rough around the edges in training camp, and he’s always needed to work on his run defense to become a more well-rounded player. Given that Detroit prefers containment over pass rush, it’s not that surprising of a decision by the Lions coaching staff. And with Kyler Murray up next, it wouldn’t be a complete shock for the Lions to do it again in Week 3.
Still, as one of the team’s best chances at generating a pass rush, it’s disappointing to see the team bench him early on.
4. Jonah Jackson (Round 3, Pick 11)
After a rocky debut in Detroit, Jackson rebounded quite nicely against the Green Bay Packers. He even caught the attention of NFL Network draft analyst Ben Fennell:
Jonah Jackson had some of the best pass pro reps vs Za’Darius Smith I’ve seen in 2 years.... Really good player— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) September 22, 2020
I think this Jonah Jackson is going to be alright for the Lions... Few highlights plays vs GB. Powerful mauler will fit right into the NFC North pic.twitter.com/DCvbwWhRXl— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) September 22, 2020
Jackson earned the third-highest PFF grade among all Lions players on offense in Week 2, and he did not allow a sack against a decent Packers defensive front.
5. Logan Stenberg (Round 4, Pick 15)
Stenberg was active for the first time during Sunday’s game, but did not take a snap on special teams nor on offense. It’s clear the Lions are going to wait with Stenberg, as the Lions were shorthanded at guard in this game, but preferred to use backup veterans Oday Aboushi and Kenny Wiggins in the gameplan.
6. Quintez Cephus (Round 5, Pick 21)
With Kenny Golladay out, Cephus continues to play more than any other rookie on the team short of Jackson. While there are plenty of kinks to work out in his game, and he’s by no means a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, he has slid into the starting lineup seamlessly and really looks like he belongs on an NFL field.
On Sunday, he caught all three balls thrown his way for 54 yards, including a big 36-yard play. Out of all the Lions rookies, Cephus may have had the most promising start of them all, even if his statistics aren’t flashy.
7. John Penisini (Round 6, Pick 18)
The injury to Nick Williams allowed Penisini to see a significant increase in playing time in Week 2. After playing in just nine snaps against the Bears, he played double that in Green Bay.
It’s hard to judge the performance of a rookie nose tackle, but the former Utah defender has yet to record his first NFL tackle. So there is some work to do. Still, it’s promising that the Lions are trusting him to play more on defense, as he got more playing time than Kevin Strong, who has a year of experience over him.