Another Draft, Another Corner

For the ninth time in the past 10 drafts, the Packers chose a defensive player with their first pick. And for the fourth time in the past seven drafts, that defensive player was a cornerback.

Georgia’s Eric Stokes will now join a secondary that features two other No. 1 picks (Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage) and a pair of No. 2 picks (Kevin King and Josh Jackson). Add in No. 1s at nose tackle (Kenny Clark) and outside linebacker (Rashan Gary), and the Packers have invested more premium draft capital on that side of the ball than any team in the league. Even with questions at end and inside linebacker, a lack of talent won’t be a viable excuse for new defensive coordinator Joe Barry.

As far as Stokes is concerned, I had him ranked as the seventh-best cornerback and a mid to late second-round pick. That said, I certainly wasn’t shocked to hear his name called at No. 29. General manager and MVP repeller (couldn’t resist) Brian Gutekunst loves taking big-time athletes on Day 1, and few players in this year’s draft are more athletic than Stokes. He’s big (6-1, 195); he’s fast (state champion at both 100 and 200 meters in high school and recently ran the 40 in just under 4.3 seconds), and he can really jump (vertical of 39 inches/broad of 128.5 inches).

But Stokes is more than just a terrific athlete. He enjoyed a very good final season at Georgia. In fact, he was seldom challenged as arguably the SEC’s third-best corner behind Alabama’s Patrick Surtain, who went ninth overall to Denver on Thursday, and LSU’s Derek Stingley, who figures to go even higher a year from now. In the five games I watched on tape, Stokes allowed only three receptions on six targets. Opposing quarterbacks were much more willing to test Tyson Campbell, Georgia’s other talented corner who’s expected to be drafted later today.

There are two reasons why I had Stokes ranked behind Surtain, Jaycee Horn, Caleb Farley, Greg Newsome Jr., Asante Samuel Jr., and Campbell. The first is his inconsistency as a tackler. It’s not that he’s afraid of contact; it’s just that he’s not very reliable when it comes to supporting the run or getting a receiver down in the open field. But the bigger issue is his hips. While Stokes isn’t nearly as stiff as King or Jackson, he’s nowhere near as fluid as Alexander. He doesn’t transition out of breaks the way you’d expect from a No. 1 pick. This could make staying with super quick wide receivers a problem at the next level. And while it wasn’t much of an issue in college since his explosive closing speed more often than not allowed him to get in position to make a play on the ball even when he initially got beat on slants and crossing routes, football on Saturdays is a lot different than football on Sundays.

One thing Stokes will definitely have to work on at the next level is being less grabby. He was called for nine penalties at Georgia, even though college officials tend to be less strict than NFL officials when it comes to a defensive back putting his hands on a receiver (the exception being the apparently blind zebras in the NFC championship game who decided that the Buccaneers could mug Davante Adams and Allen Lazard with impunity).

If you’ve never watched Stokes play, the former Packer he reminds me most of is Sam Shields. The new guy is a little bigger (6-1 vs. 5-11) and not quite as fast (low 4.3s vs. high 4.2s) as the old guy, but they share the same rare ability to outrun a mistake in technique. Like Shields, who started 64 games for the Packers and went to a Pro Bowl, Stokes is difficult to beat deep, and he does a really nice job defending back shoulder throws. The biggest difference between the two is the impact they have on games. Shields made multiple plays every week that made you say “wow.” I don’t recall uttering that word very often while watching Stokes. His game is more steady than spectacular.

Not sure if this play is spectacular, but it’s sure impressive. Stokes (#27) starts out covering Xzavier Henderson (#3) and is alert enough to get off his man and intercept a pass intended for Kadarius Toney (#1). He then uses his great speed and athleticism to take the ball 38 yards for a touchdown.

As for how Stokes fits in Green Bay, it would be a bit of a disappointment if he doesn’t quickly move ahead of Chandon Sullivan on the depth chart. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be the starting nickel corner. While Stokes is certainly capable of lining up in the slot, he played nearly 90 percent of his snaps last season on the outside and that’s where he fits best. So Barry will have to decide what he wants to do with Stokes, Alexander, and King.

One option would be to use Alexander as the “star” – a role Jalen Ramsey excelled at for the Los Angeles Rams last season. This position asks the defensive back to be a bit of a corner, a bit of a safety, and a bit of a linebacker. Such a move would allow Stokes to get on the field sooner. If Barry doesn’t want to move Alexander from where he blossomed into a second-team All-Pro, Stokes would be another option to be the “star,” although that would be asking an awful lot of a rookie. So while it may be unclear right now where and how Stokes will be employed, you can be pretty sure the plan is for him to play. Gutekunst didn’t draft him in the first round to sit behind the likes of Sullivan.

Stokes should also be able to help on special teams. His size, speed, and aggressiveness are perfectly suited for covering kicks. He also blocked one punt at Georgia and came agonizingly close on a few others. Just how much he’s used on special teams will likely be determined by the size of his role on defense, but you can be certain he’ll see plenty of action since this part of the team has been a major weakness for the better part of the past two decades.

So what’s my final verdict on Gutekunst’s fifth No. 1 pick as general manager of the Packers? I like it a lot more than Jordan Love (2020), a little more than Rashan Gary (2019), a little less than Darnell Savage (2019), and a lot less than Alexander (2018). And while I’m thrilled that Gutekunst didn’t trade up yet again on Day 1, I have to wonder why he didn’t move down and add another pick or two. It’s highly doubtful another team was going to take Stokes before 35. But since there’s no guarantee of that, it’s difficult to criticize Gutekunst for not risking a player he obviously really likes. Whether he’s right to like this particular player quite so much is a legitimate question.

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Packers Notes is the creation of Michael Rodney, who has been writing about the Green Bay Packers for over 30 years. His first blog, Packer Update, hit the internet in 2004. Before becoming a public educator, Rodney worked as a journalist for a couple of newspapers in his home state of New Jersey and covered the Philadelphia Eagles for WTXF-TV. He's had numerous articles on the Packers published, and he's been featured on both television and radio over the years.
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