Twenty-six starts in the SEC, All-America selections, All-SEC selections, second in the SEC in turnovers. 6-foot-1, 196 pounds, 4.25 40, 41.5-inch vertical. Those seem like first-round measurables for an NFL cornerback.
That is the resume' former Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes has put together during his collegiate career with the Bulldogs. However, despite playing like one of the top corners in college football, heading into the draft Stokes' stock doesn't portray that of a first-rounder.
So, why is Stokes not getting the love?
This week, Pro Football Focus made waves in the Georgia football community with their ranking of the top-10 corners in the NFL Draft. It wasn’t the fact that former Georgia cornerback Tyson Campbell came in at No. 8 in their ranking that upset Georgia fans; it was that the AP first-team All-SEC Stokes didn’t make the list.
Georgia fans have known how good Stokes is for a long time. Coming into the 2019 season, outsiders might have worried about how the defense would replace first-round draft pick Deandre Baker at cornerback, but Dawgs fans were not. They had seen enough of Stokes from the end of the 2018 season to believe they would be just fine, and they were right. Stokes has been a lockdown corner for the Dawgs his entire career.
Stokes seemed to take the ranking in stride, but Georgia fans have been up in arms over what they view as disrespect for a fan favorite. After all, isn’t it obvious that a player with his accolades, measurables and the second-most interceptions in the SEC last year should at least be a top-10 cornerback in this year’s draft?
The short answer is . . . it’s complicated.
The reason his ranking doesn’t match the career he had at Georgia lies in his ball skills.
In the last decade, there may not have been a better Georgia cornerback at playing in phase than Stokes. His ability to stay stride for stride with receivers is what kept opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators from throwing the ball in his direction for the majority of his snaps.
In college, staying in phase is enough to make a player a lockdown corner, but the NFL requires much more from its cornerbacks. Teams need their defensive backs to have the ability to make a play on the ball in the air.
NFL quarterbacks can fit balls in the tightest of windows, and so no matter how great position you are in as a cornerback, you can still be beaten. The most effective way to prevent a receiver from catching a ball is by disrupting it before it gets to the receiver. Despite having the second-highest interception total in the SEC last year, the ability to make a play on the ball in the air is the weakest part of Stokes's game. Stokes himself addressed this after his Georgia Pro Day, where he performed poorly in the ball-skills drills.
Take this interception against Florida that Stokes returned for a touchdown for example. It's an excellent play by all accounts, but NFL evaluators can see that the ball is bobbled before ultimately being caught in Stokes' stomach.
It may seem silly to criticize an interception returned for a touchdown, but if you're looking for real answers as to why Stokes isn't receiving the love from NFL evaluators, that has to be taken into account. The NFL views that as an incompletion on their level.
Despite a subpar showing in ball skills in his Pro-Day workouts, Stokes’s performance in every other aspect shows why he can still be elite in the NFL. Stokes has the frame to match up well against NFL receivers. His vertical leap proves there are few players that will be able to go up and bring down balls over the top of him.
However, the most remarkable aspect of Stokes’s Pro Day was his blazing 40 time. This feat, which he repeated three times for scouts, puts him in an elite class of athletes. These measurables and his elite ability to stay in phase mean that Stokes is unlikely to fall too far outside of the first round. After all, NFL coaches should be confident in their ability to teach a guy to catch.
It appears Stokes will be a second- or third-round draft pick. That's still a tremendous accomplishment for a former track runner who is relatively new to what high-level football looks like.