Eric Stokes' return opens door to vast changes … if Packers are open to it
As Eric Stokes nears his return from knee and foot injuries, the Packers must decide how they want the completion of the entire secondary to look.
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Certain stories dominated the Green Bay Packers' offseason narrative. The now-annual discourse surrounding David Bakhtiari's knee swung upward with the team and player both enthusiastic about his 2023 outlook. Meanwhile, the front office eschewed experience among the receivers in order to prioritize speed and athleticism. And, of course, the titanic trade of Aaron Rodgers and the transition to Jordan Love under center took centerstage.
But while those matters grabbed the headlines in Green Bay, another development lingered in the shadows: cornerback Eric Stokes' recovery from knee and foot injuries.
The Packers' first-round pick in 2021, Stokes burst onto the NFL scene as a rookie, taking over as a starting boundary corner by his third game and never relinquishing the job. Stokes excelled in press coverage, using his ideal length (6-foot, 78-inch wingspan) to redirect receivers at the line of scrimmage while leaning on his track-star speed (4.31 seconds in the 40-yard dash) to overcome mistakes. Over the course of the season, he held opponents to a 51% catch rate and a passer rating of 79.1.
That stellar debut raised expectations for Stokes' follow-up campaign. However, Stokes never found his footing amid schematic shifts under defensive coordinator Joe Barry. Offenses regularly picked on Stokes who didn't register a single pass breakup a year after notching nine, according to Pro Football Focus.
Though the Packers changed up their coverages by season's end, Stokes couldn't benefit. A torn meniscus and Lisfranc injury cost the young corner the second half of 2022 and have left him effectively sidelined so far in 2023. Stokes began training camp on the physically unable to perform list and migrated to the in-season version of the PUP once Week 1 arrived.
But as the calendar reaches late October, Stokes has begun to emerge from his lengthy hibernation. The Packers designated him for return off the PUP list at the start of the month, opening a three-week window in which he will either join the 53-man roster or revert to injured reserve. Stokes participated in each practice leading up to Week 5's tilt with the Las Vegas Raiders and has continued to do so after Green Bay returned from bye on Monday.
With Stokes nearing a return, the Packers have some choices to make. Not only will the coaches have to decide how to integrate him back into the defense, but they must also determine whether his activation should trigger larger changes to the secondary.