Life in the NFL is hard for a rookie and it takes time to acclimate to the professional level. On a regular basis, rookies fall short of expectations or burn out in their first year, and it’s not until year two that we see true development.
So that brings us to our question of the day: Which 2020 Detroit Lions rookie is most likely to make a developmental leap in 2021?
Let’s take a quick look at the 11 of the Lions’ rookies from last season to help us answer this question.
- CB Jeff Okudah (1st): situational starter in 2020, Okudah started six of the nine games he played in before landing on injured reserve. He’s trending towards 100 percent and looks poised to challenge for a starting role in 2021.
- RB D’Andre Swift (2nd): opened the season as a rotational player but took over a starting role halfway through the season and is expected to the top option in the Lions' two-man backfield.
- EDGE Julian Okwara (3rd): a situational pass rusher only played six games due to injury in 2020. The younger Okwara will compete for an EDGE role with Austin Bryant and Charles Harris.
- IOL Jonah Jackson (3rd): a 16 game starter at guard, Jackson opened the season at right guard before switching to the left guard spot over the final 14 games of the season.
- G Logan Stenberg (4th): a regular game-day inactive, Stenberg didn’t play an offensive snap during the 2020 season.
- WR Quintez Cephus (5th): opened the season starting in place of Kenny Golladay, but settled back in a rotational role after the first few weeks.
- NT John Penisini (6th): his role grew as the season progressed and held a situational starter role at the nose by the end of the season.
- DL Jashon Cornell (7th): tore his ACL the first day of camp and spent the season on injured reserve.
- TE Hunter Bryant (UDFA): only played in five games due to injury and is currently on reserve/NFI.
- S Jalen Elliott (UDFA): didn’t see game action in 2020.
- S Bobby Price (UDFA): was elevated late in the season, as a need presented itself on special teams due to injuries.
You would hope all these sophomores improve in some manner and an argument could be made for each one to potentially have the biggest developmental leap.
Okudah seems poised to make a large jump in production as he is now healthy and has defensive coordinator (and former All-Pro corner) Aaron Glenn and rising coaching star Aubrey Pleasant guiding him.
It’s not talked about as frequently, but Swift is in the same boat as Okudah when it comes to a coaching connection, as offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn and assistant head coach/running back coach Duce Staley are both former NFL running backs.
Okwara, now healthy, has a chance to follow in his big brother's footsteps. As the talent on the offensive line continues to improve, Jackson may get better by default. Maybe Stenberg pulls a Matt Nelson and goes from practice squader to a role in the two-deep.
My answer: it’s got to be Okudah.
There’s a reason Okudah was drafted third overall. He is athletic, talented, and one of the most cerebral players on this roster. He is finally healthy and should able to execute his skill set to its maximum. But the real game-changer is going his ability to soak in knowledge from Glenn and Pleasant.