Packers DB Among ‘10 NFL Players With Most to Prove’

After a dismal 2022 season and injury-plagued 2023, Eric Stokes needs a bounce-back season for himself and the Packers.
Eric Stokes gives up a touchdown at Carolina last season.
Eric Stokes gives up a touchdown at Carolina last season. / Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Eric Stokes’ career is on the clock.

After a fabulous freshman season, sophomore slump and jinxed junior campaign, the Green Bay Packers cornerback is entering a make-or-break fourth season in the NFL.

With that, he appropriately earned a spot on Pro Football Focus’ list of 10 players with the most to prove this season.

“Stokes was solid as a rookie but has faded from memory since, largely because he’s played just 587 defensive snaps in two seasons,” PFF’s Bradley Locker wrote. “Plus, Stokes hasn’t been good when he has played: he allowed a catch on over 80 percent of targets in coverage across 2022-23.”

The pressure is on from multiple perspectives.

First, the Packers did not activate Stokes’ fifth-year option. Thus, the 2021 first-round pick will need a bounce-back season to earn anything other than a one-year, minimum-salary contract in free agency next offseason.

Second, that bounce-back season will require getting on the field and staying on the field. After missing the second half of the 2022 season with a foot injury, Stokes played in only three games in 2023. He served three stints on injured lists, including seven games after suffering a hamstring injury in his season debut and the end of the season after injuring the hamstring again.

Third, the Packers are counting on Stokes. Their only noteworthy addition at the position was a seventh-round pick on Penn State’s Kalen King, a 2022 All-American who had almost nonexistent ball production in 2023 and performed poorly in predraft testing.

Thus, there are limited options. With Stokes and Jaire Alexander missing large swaths of the season, seventh-round rookie Carrington Valentine started 12 games and journeyman Corey Ballentine started six games – his first starts since two games with the Giants in 2020.

“At the end of the day, I couldn’t control anything that they did” from a personnel perspective, Stokes said during Packers OTAs. “If they went and drafted a corner in the first round, I was going to be there and make sure he learned the ropes and all that stuff.

“Just be the vet just like Kev(in King) was to me. That’s why I have so much love for Kev. The moment I came in, he wasn’t doing anything different towards me. He treated me like Ja. He treated me like one of his little bros. He helped me out so much to where like my rookie year, I give so much shoutout to Kev because he helped me out tremendously.”

Even assuming Alexander will stay healthy and return to elite form, the Packers will need Stokes to step up – either as a starter or to provide critical depth.

That’s quite a roll of the dice. Stokes started 11 games in 2022 and 2023 but didn’t break up a pass, let alone grab an interception.

Stokes spent the three weeks of organized team activities running with the No. 1 defense. That he practiced every day was encouraging considering he missed 24 of the past 27 games.

“I think he’s as good as I’ve ever seen him. Both mentally and on the field,” coach Matt LaFleur said recently. “I want to temper the expectations with that, but I really mean that. He’s out there competing each and every day. He looks fully healthy. He’s doing a great job of challenging our wide receivers.

“I think you see that personality is back. That’s tough on players when they’re going through an offseason not having opportunity to really build upon their bodies when you’re just focusing on rehabbing and getting healthy. He’s had a chance to really develop his body. He looks in great shape. I think the play says the same.”

After one injury after another, it “definitely” took Stokes time to get in a good place mentally.

“I would 110 percent agree with that,” he said. “It took me time because, of course, from the start, I was mad. I was frustrated, everything just going wrong. But, at the end of the day, it’s a bigger picture with everything. Like I know it was a lesson I had to go through for every little thing that I went through. Now it’s time to show.”

Stokes is joined by four quarterbacks, including the Steelers’ Russell Wilson. 

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Bill Huber

BILL HUBER

Bill Huber, who has covered the Green Bay Packers since 2008, is the publisher of Packer Central, a Sports Illustrated channel. E-mail: packwriter2002@yahoo.com History: Huber took over Packer Central in August 2019. Twitter: https://twitter.com/BillHuberNFL Background: Huber graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he played on the football team, in 1995. He worked in newspapers in Reedsburg, Wisconsin Dells and Shawano before working at The Green Bay News-Chronicle and Green Bay Press-Gazette from 1998 through 2008. With The News-Chronicle, he won several awards for his commentaries and page design. In 2008, he took over as editor of Packer Report Magazine, which was founded by Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Nitschke, and PackerReport.com. In 2019, he took over the new Sports Illustrated site Packer Central, which he has grown into one of the largest sites in the Sports Illustrated Media Group.