GREEN BAY – Jerry Gray told Eric Stokes all throughout his rookie season he'd have a target on his back.
Gray, the Packers' veteran defensive backs coach/passing game coordinator and a Pro Bowl DB in his playing days, knows as well as anyone that's how it works in a pass-oriented league like the NFL. Quarterbacks see a newbie on the field, they're going to challenge him.
Nothing speaks to Stokes' response to that challenge more than his leading the team with 14 passes defensed in 2021. The first-round draft pick, chosen with the No. 29 overall pick out of Georgia back in April and noted for his sub-4.3 speed, stepped into the starting lineup in Week 3 and never looked back.
"They don't pick on the strong guys up here," Gray said as the regular season was wrapping up. "To get them to stop throwing at you, you gotta become one of the strong guys. He's done a good job and again, a team's going to test him every week."
Stokes quickly became a mainstay on defense as a rookie both due to his solid play and an injury to Jaire Alexander, who missed 13 games before returning for the playoffs.
Veteran Rasul Douglas, signed off of Arizona's practice squad when Alexander got hurt, made a lot of headlines with a team-best five interceptions, including two pick-sixes, while Stokes continued to learn the ropes. The two became a strong starting tandem their coaches and teammates counted on heavily.
As the season wore on, Stokes felt mentally he kept getting a stronger handle on the pro game, and he established himself as a key part of the young nucleus the Packers look forward to having on defense in the coming years.
"Just the knowledge, just knowing what the offense is going to hit us with and just being more prepared," Stokes said after the season ended, of how he grew the most as a rookie.
"You know that this going to happen, or this is going to happen. Just being more decisive, into everything I'm doing, and just being confident with it."
Anticipating he'd be thrown into the fire right away, the Packers had Stokes line up across from All-Pro receiver Davante Adams frequently during training camp. It was the best physical preparation any rookie could ask for, as well as a test of his confidence.
Stokes never backed down. Sure, he got beat here and there by Aaron Rodgers and Adams (who doesn't?), but he battled every time.
He got his first NFL interception in Week 4 vs. Pittsburgh, picking off future Hall of Fame QB Ben Roethlisberger in the fourth quarter of a home victory. He had chances for others, too, most notably on a wobbly pass to the sideline by San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo in the NFC Divisional playoff.
It appeared to have pick-six written all over it, but Stokes said he anticipated the ball coming faster than it did, so he focused on securing the tackle on the play.
"When I got to the sideline and saw it, I was like, dang I should've actually made a play on the ball," Stokes said. "It is what it is. I can't take that back or anything. Just gotta move forward."
It's the type of play that's easy to see Stokes making more often than missing as his career continues.
Head Coach Matt LaFleur repeatedly pointed out Stokes' competitiveness throughout the season after matchups against receivers like Cincinnati's Ja'Marr Chase or Seattle's DK Metcalf, among other top opponents.
It wasn't all perfect, as stars such as Arizona's DeAndre Hopkins and Minnesota's Justin Jefferson scored long touchdowns against him. But according to stathead.com, Stokes allowed a measly 49.5% completion rate on the season, fourth in the league among all NFL defensive backs targeted more than 45 times.
Assuming Alexander is healthy in 2022 and playing regularly, Stokes can probably count on still being attacked by opposing QBs. Gray's words will continue to hold true.
That competitive makeup combined with his blazing speed should serve him well as he builds on a promising rookie season.
"The biggest lesson is pretty much just live in the moment," Stokes said. "Because you will have your highs, you will have your lows, and you've just got to continue to rock out with it and continue to grow and learn from it."