Eric Stokes’ speed is not in question.
Stokes says he ran a 4.25-second 40-yard dash at his Pro Day this March. Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst quoted the number at 4.29. Either way, that’s blazing speed. But what the Packers seem to be drawn to as much as Stokes the athlete is Stokes the person.
“He’s a quality human being that’s really driven,” Gutekunst said on Thursday night after the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. “He’s overcome a lot of adversity in his young life.”
If Stokes the person is as impressive as Stokes the athlete, the Packers should have a good one on their hands.
Not only is Eric Stokes fast, but he is explosive. A 38-1/2 inch vertical and a 10-foot-8 broad jump put him in elite territory. He’s big for his position at about 6-foot-1 and 194 pounds. But his physical tools are only one part of his arsenal of weapons as a defender, one that he told Packers media that he tries to lean on less by instead improving his technique as a cover player.
“Just focus on your technique so you don’t have to use your speed” is how Stokes put it, speaking to the media after his selection with the 29th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Technique is something Stokes should be able to learn from Packers defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback in his playing days and a longtime position coach in the league. Sitting in the same room as Jaire Alexander, a second-team All-Pro in 2020, shouldn’t hurt either, and Stokes mentioned Alexander as a player he loves to watch at the NFL level.
“I knew Alexander, if not one of the best, he’s the best in the league, cause he’s just a dawg ... I know for a fact that he’s greedy, he’s hungry. That’s pretty much how I look at myself. I’m gonna give you everything I got because he’s gonna do the same.”
Even prior to the draft, Stokes admired Alexander’s game. He told Justin Melo of TheDraftNetwork.com that the Packers corner is the player that he would most love to talk ball with:
“I would probably go with Jaire Alexander from the Green Bay Packers. I love how he plays the game and how he carries himself. He has that dog mentality. Earlier, I called myself a vulture. He’s a vulture too. He’s taking every little scrap out there. I would love to pick his brain. I want to talk to him about his technique. He’s so aggressive. I just love him as a player.”
Still, Stokes is relatively young in his career as a defensive back. 2020 was only his fourth year playing cornerback, and it seemed to take him a bit to develop into a big-play producer. But he broke out last fall, intercepting four passes and taking two of those back to the house for touchdowns, including one in a rivalry game against Florida.
Still, Stokes took the field early in his collegiate career, starting three games as a redshirt freshman in 2018 before grabbing hold of a full-time starting job in 2019. In that time, he faced a murderer’s row of SEC receivers that included four top-20 picks in the 2021 NFL Draft: Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, and Kadarius Toney.
Stokes says that playing against that level of competition made him believe that he belongs in the NFL: “I pretty much held my own throughout the whole year ... (that) gave me the confidence, I know for a fact that I’ve played against NFL-type wide receivers in the SEC.”
The Packers clearly had their eye on Stokes as the first round of the draft ticked down into the mid-20s. Gutekunst said that Stokes “was sticking out like a sore thumb on our board,” adding that they were “excited” that he was still available when the team went on the clock at 29.
Gutekunst said that the team did have some conversations about trading back in the draft, but that Stokes’ value ended up dictating the final decision to take him at 29: “We didn’t want to pass up a chance to get Eric,” he noted.
And those intangibles? The Packers have seemingly put substantial effort into building a locker room of high-character players who are willing to work and learn. Gutekunst feels that Stokes will fit right in with the environment he is trying to create, saying “He fit our profile not only as a player but as a person. He’s going to be a great fit not only as a player but as a person.”
The Packers have made the investment in Stokes with the 29th overall pick. It is now his job to live up to the expectations that come along with a first-round draft status in Green Bay.