GREEN BAY, Wis. – Draft grades are as useless as a truckload of sand delivered to a desert. For what it’s worth – and, of course, it’s worth nothing – the Green Bay Packers’ 2021 NFL Draft class received the lowest initial grade by Pro Football Focus.
One year later, that grade has improved considerably. One of only two teams to receive a C-minus immediately after the draft, that mark has risen to a B-minus.
“The PFF draft board was considerably lower on each of the Packers' first four selections than where they got drafted, hence the initial grade,” PFF’s Mike Renner wrote. “The only player to really change that opinion after one season is Eric Stokes, who had a strong first campaign. He allowed just a 51.0% completion percentage in his coverage en route to a 67.6 coverage grade.”
A converted running back, Stokes was the team’s first-round pick despite lacking an abundance of experience at Georgia. Was he more than just pure speed? A project? Was he even the best Georgia cornerback in the draft? As it turns out, Stokes was terrific, and there’s no doubt the Packers would have failed to reach 13 wins without his quick rise.
With Jaire Alexander and Kevin King missing the bulk of their seasons due to injuries, a lot was asked and required of Stokes. Thanks in part to daily trials by fire against Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams during training camp, Stokes generally was up to the task. Stokes led the team with 14 passes defensed.
“Stokes was a rookie last year; now he understands how to play,” defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator Jerry Gray said last week. “He got about maybe 800 snaps under his belt, which most rookies don’t get on good teams. So, I think that’s going to help Stokes take another step up.”
According to Sports Info Solutions, he allowed a 46.2 percent completion rate and 5.3 yards per target, figures that ranked sixth and eighth, respectively, among starting corners. While he dropped four interceptions, he was superb down the stretch and tackled well, too.
“All them snaps that I had last year is just repetition,” Stokes said on Tuesday. “It’s getting to know the formations, getting to know the routes, getting to know wide receivers, getting to know all this stuff that you just didn’t see throughout college and getting experienced and all of that. When I had to jump into that role of me starting and me doing all this stuff and me going with the 1s just helped me learn and grow quicker and all that stuff. I take so much away from it.”
Green Bay’s nine-man draft class featured three instant starters: Stokes in the first round, center Josh Myers in the second round and right guard Royce Newman in the fourth round. Fifth-round defensive tackle TJ Slaton showed some promise, but the other four picks – third-round receiver Amari Rodgers, fifth-round cornerback Shemar Jean-Charles, sixth-round offensive lineman Cole Van Lanen, sixth-round linebacker Isaiah McDuffie and seventh-round running back Kylin Hill – played sparingly.
For the 2021 draft class to reach its full potential, the Packers will need more this season from Myers, who played barely one-quarter of the snaps last season due to a knee injury, and Rodgers, who barely played on offense as a rookie behind veteran Randall Cobb.
“I don’t give Amari the out that Randall was here because it’s your job to beat Randall out or to beat our Z out,” receivers coach and passing game coordinator Jason Vrable said last week.
“And even though he plays slot, I got him working at Z and he’s done that before. His performance just wasn’t on their level and that’s the reality of it. It wasn’t that he was bad, but he wasn’t doing the high-level things that Randall was doing or at Z, (Allen) Lazard. So, right now, the biggest thing we worked on and I talked to him in the offseason is just, how do you get your confidence? Well, you work and train harder than you ever did. So, if you were to see him right now, he’s already going to look faster and look stronger than he ever did.”