FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- No, Jeff Okudah will not be taking the field Sunday for the Falcons home opener against the Carolina Panthers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He's still working to reach 100 percent after sustaining a foot injury in the early weeks of training camp. However, that doesn't mean he's not putting in significant work.
In fact, Jerry Gray is having a hard time keeping Okudah out of his office.
"He wants more, (saying) 'Give me more, Coach. Give me more,'" Gray said of Okudah. "He's pretty much always in my office, always asking: 'When can we meet?'"
The answer to that second question: often.
Head coach Arthur Smith said on Wednesday that the Falcons feel good about the progress Okudah has made physically. When asked about Okudah's status, Smith said the fourth-year cornerback is making a lot of progress in his rehab. Smith added that he may even be ahead of where the Falcons may have originally thought he would be. He reiterated these same sentiments on Friday.
After Okudah's injury in training camp, the prognosis was better than the injury initially looked. Okudah had to be carted off the field, but Smith said a few days later that the Falcons were hopeful he'd be back by the early weeks of the regular season. Based on his comments in the lead up to the Falcons' Week 1 game, that timeline seems to hold true.
So, physically, Okudah is nearing 100 percent. Mentally, though? Gray said he's already there.
"We watch film every morning. We go in and go through stuff. (He'll say): 'Hey Coach, what about this?' or, 'What about that?'" Gray said. "He's taking notes as if he's playing. ... I know, mentally, he's ready to go."
This is something Gray and Okudah have been working towards since Okudah's injury. Gray said that, when the Falcons were in Miami for joint practices a month ago, he had left quite a bit of homework for Okudah. This homework -- at the time -- included Okudah breaking down Frank Reich's offensive play calling in Indianapolis, where he worked as head coach from 2018 into the 2022 season. The Falcons will face Reich and his new Carolina team on Sunday without Okudah, but that doesn't mean Okudah wasn't in step with the rest of the secondary's preparation for the game ahead.
Gray said he's seen players have a short-term injury and check out for a few weeks. They're off, he said, physically and mentally. Then, when they get the green light physically, they're at a yellow light mentally. They're having to play catch up. That won't be Okudah, Gray said.
"What do you have control over right now? You have the film. You can get your mind right to go. You can be prepared to go," Gray said of his advice to Okudah. "... He's not going to take a step back because he's mentally ready to go."
In the meantime, as the Falcons wait for Okudah's green light, defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen said he's confident in the depth the Falcons have nurtured in the secondary.
"Jerry (Gray) and (secondary coach Steve) Jackson have done a great job developing that whole group. We've got some young guys who are coming along and we have some older veterans who've played a lot of games, made a lot of plays," Nielsen said. "We feel really good about where we are with that position."
Since Okudah's injury, the Falcons have slotted Tre Flowers in opposite A.J. Terrell. Dee Alford has taken on the full brunt of the starting nickel reps, while Jessie Bates III and Richie Grant have held down the safety position. In depth, the Falcons have guys like Clark Phillips III, Jaylinn Hawkins and DeMarcco Hellams. Mike Hughes also returned to the practice field this week, too, after missing the majority of the preseason with a hip flexor injury, which he confirmed during open locker room earlier in the week. Hughes has the ability to play inside and outside, so his versatility comes in handy in depth as well.
The Falcons may not have Okudah in Week 1, but they still feel confident about their secondary and the depth it has. With Okudah doing his part in keeping his mental game strong, when his physical game clears, the plan is that he'll slot right back into this group with ease.
Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch for week one of the 2023 regular season, presented by Fast Twitch.