GREEN BAY – Eric Stokes stood on the balls of his feet, backpedaled, and broke at half speed, as the Packers' defense went through walkthroughs during Tuesday's organized team activities.
Lined up a good 10 yards behind his teammates, the third-year cornerback mimicked every motion of his fellow defensive backs. For now, this secondary shadowboxing is the closest Stokes gets to practice after being cleared to run again earlier this month.
Following a promising rookie season, the Packers' 2021 first-round pick encountered the first significant injury of his career when he tore his meniscus and suffered a Lisfranc injury last November in Detroit. Both injuries required surgery.
"It was tough, especially rolling around in a wheelchair. That was pretty much low," Stokes said. "Since then, I got back up, got back moving, just started taking it pretty much brick by brick, day by day."
To do so, the happy-go-lucky cornerback known for sticking motivational post-it notes to his locker set small recovery goals for himself. Stokes cleared the first hurdle in January, when he transitioned from the wheelchair to walking with crutches. Last week, he was allowed to put on his cleats again.
Over the past six months, Stokes has received a lot of advice and support from teammates, including running back Patrick Taylor. The third-year veteran suffered a Lisfranc injury during his senior year at Memphis and went through a rather difficult recovery process after he attempted to come back too soon.
Taylor wound up doing more damage, which required surgery with renowned foot specialist, Dr. Robert Anderson, in March 2020. Taylor signed with Green Bay as a college free agent but spent his entire rookie season on physically unable to perform.
His biggest advice to Stokes was to understand there will be good days and bad days during the recovery process; days where the foot feels great and times when it aches.
"You can't get down on yourself," said Taylor, who's played two seasons now in Green Bay. "Remember to always think back on where you came from, where you were rolling around in a scooter … and then you were on crutches and then you were walking in a boot and now you're not walking in a boot and now he's running on the ground. I'm really extremely proud of him. He's been attacking his rehab, for sure."
Stokes racked up 55 tackles, a team-high 14 passes defensed and one interception in 16 games (14 starts) as a rookie but admittedly "did not get off to the start" he wanted in Year 2. In his nine starts, Stokes had 26 tackles and no deflections before the injury.
That Week 9 game at Ford Field marked a disastrous day for Green Bay on the injury front. Stokes and linebacker Rashan Gary (torn anterior cruciate ligament) were both lost for the season, while receiver Romeo Doubs suffered an ankle injury on the first offensive play of the game that sidelined him for a month.
As tough as it was to see Gary go down in Detroit, it was cathartic for Stokes to venture through the recovery process with his fellow first-round pick.
"I said it in my head all the time, like man, I'm blessed that I got hurt it was with him because RG, he's a natural leader," Stokes said. "Me being me, it'll be days to where like he don't feel it. It'll be days I don't feel it. We both push each other. We both lift each other up."
Time will tell where Stokes fits in the Packers' secondary once healthy. Green Bay's current plan calls for All-Pro Jaire Alexander and Rasul Douglas to protect the perimeter and Keisean Nixon to man the slot.
From Stokes' perspective, he was happy to see the success Douglas and Nixon had last season. While there's no set timetable for his return, Stokes understands nothing will be guaranteed once he's back. Ultimately, it's up to him to win his spot.
Regardless, Stokes plans to be his same, smiling self. Re-watching the film this offseason, the 24-year-old cornerback noticed how much fun he had during his rookie season and wants to get back to his happiest form. A serious injury may have taken him off the football field, but it didn't steal his passion or joy for the game.
"My biggest thing is I'm going to keep my same attitude no matter what," Stokes said. "Guys know me. I'm goofy. I'm going to joke … I'm going to smile. That's me. I'm not fixing to change. I'm not going to do any of that. Even through my downfall, I wasn't going to show anybody."