By almost any measure, Green Bay Packers cornerback Eric Stokes enjoyed a terrific rookie season in 2021.
The 29th overall pick from Georgia first forced his way onto the field early in the year and then soon after found himself occupying the No. 1 cornerback spot in place of All-Pro Jaire Alexander, who played in the first four games and then missed the rest of the regular season with a shoulder injury. Given the situation and circumstances, Stokes handled himself incredibly well, and his play down the stretch helped paint the picture of a young player capable of being a high-quality asset at a premium position for years to come.
The numbers were outstanding.
According to Pro Football Focus, Stokes forced 12 incompletions and allowed a passer rating of just 79.1 while facing 100 total targets into his coverage. He missed only six tackles and was penalized just three times despite playing almost 1,000 total snaps, counting the postseason.
Among rookies in 2021, Stokes was first in forced incompletions and pass breakups, second in “stops” on passing plays and third in passer rating against. He and Paulson Adebo were the only rookie corners to play in all 17 games.
The stats were just as good at Sports Info Solutions. Per SIS, Stokes allowed a completion percentage of 46.3, the fifth-best mark among all NFL cornerbacks, and 5.3 yards per target into his coverage, the seventh-best mark.
SIS named Stokes to their 2021 All-Rookie team. He finished third among rookie defensive backs in “Points Saved.”
PFF had Stokes down for four touchdown passes allowed. SIS had three. Either number is fine for a first-year player who often covered the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver.
Stokes only intercepted one pass, but he also dropped four interceptions, per SIS. Only J.C. Jackson of the Patriots had more (five). The drops don’t even consider all the times when Stokes was in the right position but either didn’t find the ball or didn’t have the reactionary ball skills necessary to make a play on the ball in the air. This is an obvious area for improvement; if Stokes can better locate the ball in the air and finish more plays when he does find the ball, he’s going to be a difficult player to throw against and a potential turnover-creator at cornerback.
The Packers have to love the way he responded to a tough outing against Justin Jefferson in Minnesota in Week 11. From Week 12 on, a stretch of seven games, Stokes allowed just 19 catches on 41 targets for 157 yards. Boiled down, the rookie allowed a completion percentage of 46.3 and 3.8 yards per target during a crucial stretch of the Packers’ season.
Before getting beat by George Kittle for a big 24-yard gain late in the Packers’ playoff loss to the 49ers, Stokes hadn’t allowed a catch over 16 yards in the previous six games. Overall, he got beat for a play over 20 yards just five times total as a rookie.
Defensive backs coach Jerry Gray deserves a lot of credit for getting Stokes to play fast but also under control. His speed at Georgia was obvious. Harnessing the speed with technique was the challenge. Stokes was able to combine the two as a rookie, becoming a cornerback capable of running with receivers all over the field and recovering from mistakes with speed while also playing more under control and technically sound down in and down out.
The result was a rookie that played and produced like a true first-round pick. The Packers got Stokes at No. 29 overall, but he performed like one of the best defenders in the class in 2021.