When the Green Bay Packers drafted cornerback Eric Stokes in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, most experts projected that it was just a matter of time before the speedy rookie would take over as the team’s second cornerback.
The incumbent, Kevin King, had been re-signed on what was essentially a one-year, prove-it deal with voidable years added for cap relief. King struggled with inconsistency last season. At times, his size and long arms helped him break up passes. But he also got burned badly at key moments such as the last plays of the first half in the NFC Championship Game that was costly in the team’s eventual loss to the Buccaneers.
In training camp this year, Stokes got a lot of reps. Both quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Pro Bowl receiver Davante Adams went after the rookie in practice and the Georgia alum had a good attitude, saying he appreciated going up against two of the best in the game and learning from his mistakes in camp. Like most rookies, Stokes had his good practices and others where he was beaten badly, but he kept working and tried to improve his game.
It was a surprise to many that Stokes didn’t see a lot of action in the Packers three preseason games. King and Jaire Alexander didn’t see the field at all but Stokes only got limited reps in August. Seeing more preseason game action would have likely helped him prepare for a bigger role in the regular season.
In Week 1 against the Saints, King remained the starter at CB2 and played most of the game. He was on the field for 90 percent of the team’s defensive snaps and just like the NFC Championship Game, he gave up some big plays in the game that cost the Packers points.
Stokes, meanwhile, barely saw the field in Week 1, playing just eight snaps on defense all game. He did break up a pass but it was difficult to judge him based on only his limited action.
That changed in Week 2, especially in the second half. The defense struggled through the first two quarters, allowing two touchdowns and one field goal in four drives. King was beaten badly on a long pass to Quintez Cephus which resulted in a 46-yard gain.
So, the Packers made adjustments in the second half. Stokes was inserted into the lineup on the perimeter, opposite Alexander. King was moved inside at the “star” position to cover slot receivers. The Packers didn’t allow any points in the second half and forced two turnovers, one fumble recovery and one interception. That left Alexander, Stokes and King as the Packers top three corners with Chandon Sullivan relegated to dime back. Sullivan was on the field for only 18 snaps.
By the end of the game, Stokes was on the field for 44 defensive snaps or 77 percent of the team’s total. He was credited with breaking up two passes and showed the potential that caused the Packers to draft him in the first round this past April.
Yes, Stokes is still learning the Packers defensive playbook and adjusting to the NFL game. Yes, he still makes his share of rookie mistakes and we saw him seemingly out of position on one of the Lions first-half touchdowns.
But it is also clear that King remains the same player that was a problem last year. He is inconsistent in coverage and often injured. He is not going to get significantly better in the future now that he’s in his fifth NFL season. Stokes is clearly the future at the cornerback position while King is unlikely to be back with the Packers after this season.
The Packers know if they start Stokes now, he will make his share of mistakes. Rookie cornerbacks tend to struggle with consistency. There will be moments Stokes will shine and moments where he will be out of position because he isn’t fully comfortable with the defense just yet. But they also know that the more Stokes plays, the fewer mistakes he should make and the better he will get. They cannot say the same thing about King who at this point in his career, is what he is.
The transition to Stokes has already begun. There may be games where the Packers give him more action and some games when he sees fewer snaps depending on the receivers that week’s opponent has and what the defensive strategy is against that particular team.
But the key for the Packers is what will make them the best team during the stretch run and in the playoffs if they get there. It appears that Stokes has more potential than King right now. The question is how quickly he takes over as CB2 and how well he does once he sees the field more often.
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