When the Green Bay Packers selected cornerback Eric Stokes in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft last April, the hope was that the rookie would win the starting job at some point in the season and start opposite Pro Bowl corner Jaire Alexander. Alexander would be the shutdown corner on one side while Stokes would use his elite speed and develop into a strong starter on the other side of the field.
Well, those plans never worked out the way the coaching staff had envisioned. Alexander played in only four games all season after he suffered a shoulder injury making a tackle in the Packers win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. While Alexander was activated off the injured reserve for the playoffs, his impact was minimal as he only played eight snaps in the game. He is expected to be back and ready to go in time for OTAs.
Stokes had a rough time at training camp but it was for all right reasons. Both Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams saw the potential in the speedy Georgia product and decided to “test” him every day at practice. Stokes had a healthy attitude about it and saw it for what it was, a chance to make him better by going up against two of the best players in the game throughout camp.
As expected, Stokes started the season as a backup and only played eight snaps in the season opener against the Saints. But by Week 3, incumbent starter Kevin King was injured again and Stokes was pressed into the starting lineup. He remained a starter for the rest of the season and turned a lot of heads with his strong play.
Stokes used his elite speed to stay with receivers and even when he was beaten on a play, he was often able to catch up and recover.
Although he was a rookie, Stokes allowed opposing quarterbacks to compete only 49.5 percent of their passes when throwing to receivers he was covering last year according to pro-football-reference.com and their quarterback rating when throwing to receivers Stokes was covering was just 71.3.
His strong performance earned him a spot on the NFL’s All-Rookie Team for 2021.
Stokes’ biggest weakness remains his lack of consistency when tracking the ball in the air. He intercepted only one pass all season although he was in position to pick off several more. If he improves in this area next season, he has the tools and has shown the potential to develop into a top cornerback in this league.
Packers head coach Matt LaFleur was impressed with what he saw from Stokes in his first season. “He is a guy that is just wired the right way,” LaFleur told reporters during the season. “He comes to work with the right attitude, with the right mentality, and I think he’ll continue to get better and better and better the more we progress through this thing. I just love what he’s all about as a person. I think he’s got a really great skill set to complement that and we’re fortunate to have that guy on our football team. Certainly, we were getting thin there in the secondary toward the end of the game. It was cool to see some of those young guys get out there and make some plays.”
Before his injury, Alexander was considered one of the league’s best cover corners. His speed and confidence not only help to shut down receivers but gives his teammates a boost as well.
Like Stokes, Alexander has one area he needs to improve upon: his ability to make interceptions. In four seasons in the NFL, Alexander has a total of five picks. He made the Pro Bowl in 2020 after intercepting just one pass all season and that came in Week 1. That tells you how much respect he has as a cover corner.
Alexander has dropped many potential picks and if he can catch even half of those makeable chances, the sky’s the limit.
In 2021, Alexander and Stokes were in the starting lineup together for less than two games before Alexander got injured. The prospect of a healthy Jaire and an improved Stokes has great potential for the Packers at the cornerback position in 2022. Opposing quarterbacks will not have an easy time testing either of these speedy corners.
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