Rookie CB Eric Stokes passing early tests in Packers' defense

First-round pick proving he has what it takes to play right away

CB Eric Stokes

GREEN BAY – Jerry Gray wasn't trying to be a fortuneteller.

At the same time, the Packers' venerable defensive backs coach has coached, and played, enough football to know how things go in the National Football League.

So, when Gray was asked on Sept. 8 whether Eric Stokes would be ready to play right away, he quickly praised the rookie first-round pick before acknowledging the No. 1 question Stokes would need to answer for his teammates this season.

"(At) some point in time, Stokes is going to be on the field," said Gray, days before the Packers' regular-season opener in New Orleans. "They want to know, 'Can he go out there and do what he's supposed to do and we not lose a game?'"

Three games in, the answer is a definitive yes.

In the span of 14 days, Green Bay's rookie first-round pick went from playing eight snaps against the Saints to all 70 defensive plays during Sunday's 30-28 win over the San Francisco 49ers.

Between the two contests, Stokes was on the field for 44 snaps as a perimeter cornerback in the defensive sub-packages against Detroit in Week 2, defending a pair of fourth-down passes.

It seemed Stokes would fill the same role Sunday night against the 49ers, before veteran Kevin King was ruled out on the day of the game due to an illness. In his first NFL start, Stokes again had a good showing with four tackles and a deflection.

Stokes was flagged for two pass interference penalties deemed questionable, especially the one against Brandon Aiyuk on third-and-14 in fourth quarter that resulted in a 35-yard infraction, but didn't let it faze him. He still played physical and confident.

"I thought he competed and did a really nice job," said Head Coach Matt LaFleur on Monday. "I know he got dinged for the two PIs. You know, I'll let you use your own judgment and write what you want to on those. But, yeah, I thought he did an outstanding job."

A big reason the Packers selected Stokes with the 29th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft was his intangibles. He's a lengthy, ball-hawking cornerback who also ran a 4.25 in the 40-yard dash at his Georgia pro day. It's his maturity and willingness to learn that's allowed him to play right off the bat, though.

Stokes took a few lumps in training camp, like most rookies would defending against Aaron Rodgers' back-shoulder fades to All-Pro Davante Adams, but the 6-foot, 194-pound cornerback kept coming back play-after-play.

When Stokes didn't know something, he asked Gray and those around him for help.

"It's tough coming in as a rookie because the college game and the NFL game are so different, just how offenses try to set you up and do different things," safety Darnell Savage said. "The fact that he's as open to asking questions and learning from us as he is, it's going to do nothing but help him. That's what I'm most impressed by is just how receptive he is and how many questions he asks."

Every rookie cornerback must earn his keep at some point. Even All-Pro Jaire Alexander began his NFL career on the bench, rotating in as a sub-package corner just like Stokes.

Still only 22, Stokes admitted to feeling some nerves prior to the team's home opener against the Lions. It was Monday Night Football, after all. By game time, however, the butterflies had escaped him his body and his preparation took over.

The rookie has only continued to build off that.

"It's been an adjustment, I'm not gonna lie," said Stokes last Friday. "Coming from college, I was a big fish and then now, back in the NFL, I'm the little fish. So, I'm the one that don't know really what's going on. I'm the one in the meetings, they're always calling on me, they're always doing stuff on me because now, I'm the little fish."

Stokes has allowed just three completions for 27 yards on nine targets through three games, according to Pro Football Reference. His four passes defensed are currently tied for sixth-most among NFL defensive backs.

Despite seeing early success, Stokes confirmed on Friday he is still in charge of filling the snack drawer for Green Bay's defensive backs. Stokes is OK with that for now, but he hopes there are much bigger assignments awaiting him this season.

"I'm just trying to make the most of my opportunity," Stokes said. "Just continue to go out there and be the best person that I can be."

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