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'New Eric' Stokes feeling like his old self again

Packers cornerback eager to put hamstring issues behind him in 2024


GREEN BAY – One could traverse the United States and struggle to find an individual with a brighter outlook on life than Eric Stokes.

But even for the happiest-go-luckiest player in the Packers' locker room, Stokes admits a 2023 season marred by injury and multiple setbacks tested the cornerback's mettle.

The former first-round pick played in just three games last season due to a recurring hamstring injury that was tied to the Lisfranc foot injury that prematurely ended his sophomore campaign in 2022.

"Of course, from the start, I was mad," said Stokes after Wednesday's OTA practice. "I was frustrated, everything just going wrong ... but at the end of the day, it's a bigger picture with everything. It was a lesson I had to go through for every little thing. Now, it's time to show."

This past January, Stokes traveled with receiver Christian Watson and members of Green Bay's training staff to visit with specialists at Badger Athletic Performance on the campus of UW-Madison. A battery of tests and scans determined Stokes' surgically repaired foot wasn't as strong as it needed to be, putting pressure on his hamstring and calf.

Doctors believe that may have contributed to Stokes first injuring his hamstring during training camp, which caused him to start last year on the physically unable to perform list. It was a tough break for a cornerback with little-to-no history of hamstring issues.

Stokes returned in a four-snap appearance against Denver in Week 7 before aggravating it again while on punt coverage. He missed six more weeks before returning against Tampa Bay on Dec. 17. After two starts, Stokes was shut down for the year after tweaking the hamstring one final time in the lead-up to a New Year's Eve game against Minnesota.

"It was a lot of different little mindsets that I had to go through, different little trials," Stokes said. "Even when I thought I was back in Denver – boom, hamstring again. Then, (I) come back Carolina on Christmas Eve, my family watching me and then a hamstring again (the following week). Just a lot of little trials and tribulations but I took the good with the bad."

Stokes credits his work with Dr. Chris Carr, the Packers' director of performance psychology and team behavioral health clinician, for helping him stay upbeat. Carr talked with Stokes about focusing on the pros of 2023 rather than perseverating on the bad. His family getting to see Stokes play in Carolina ranked at the top of that list.

The visit to UW-Madison also made a significant difference for Stokes, who came away from the meeting feeling more confident in what he needed to do to prevent future hamstring flare-ups. Training back home in Atlanta, Stokes worked hard to strengthen his legs, calves, and hamstrings to help support his foot.

Coincidentally, Stokes spent time working out with former Packers cornerback Kevin King, who's on his own road to recovery after tearing his Achilles last year. A second-round pick in 2017, King is midst of an NFL comeback with the Atlanta Falcons.

Meanwhile, Stokes reported for the start of the Packers' offseason program feeling "faster than I was before." In the two spring practices open to the media, Stokes has been flashing his speed once again while primarily working opposite Jaire Alexander in the No. 1 defense.

"I think he's as good as I've ever seen him, both mentally and on the field," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said Wednesday. "He looks fully healthy. He's doing a great job of challenging our wide receivers. He's always in great faith. I think you see that personality is back.

"He's had a chance to really develop his body. He looks in great shape. I think the play says the same."

Stokes says he's having the most fun he's had since his rookie year in 2021, when the 6-foot, 194-pound cornerback registered 55 tackles, a team-high 12 passes defensed and an interception in 16 games (14 starts).

To see Stokes running around again has brought a smile to Alexander's face and sent positive vibes throughout Green Bay's secondary.

"He's come out here in these OTAs and he's performed really well," Alexander said. "He's battled through a bunch of adversity as we know. Just for him to come out every day and work to get better, that's just a blessing in itself."

Stokes doesn't expect anything to be handed to him this summer. In fact, he was mentally prepared to welcome in another first-round pick at cornerback had the Packers gone that direction in the 2024 NFL Draft. Green Bay didn't, choosing instead to bank on Stokes' resurgence and a cornerback room laden with veteran support.

Still only 25, Stokes hopes the stage is finally set for his comeback, his true comeback.

"Everybody got a little story. Everybody got a little thing," Stokes said. "This just taught me so many lessons, taught me so many different little things that I can't wait. I can't wait. This a new Eric. Well, I wouldn't say new. He's pretty much the same, but just a better, experienced, more 'It is what it is' type of stuff."

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