If the San Francisco 49ers are reluctant to dub J.J. Stokes
the next Jerry Rice, perhaps it is because that would be far too
great a burden to place on the young man's shoulders. It might
also be the height of irreverence--after all, Rice, going into
his 11th season, remains yards ahead of anyone else who might
claim to be the best receiver in NFL history. But in his
prideful way Rice himself provides the most telling assessment
of Stokes. "I think," says Rice, "that if I had his size, I
would be unstoppable."
Stokes is the 49ers' first-round draft choice out of UCLA, a
receiver with whom they were so smitten that they traded away a
future first-rounder for the first time since 1978, plus this
year's first-, third- and fourth-round picks, to move up from
the 30th pick to the 10th overall. San Francisco lists Stokes
officially--and conservatively--at 6'4" and 217 pounds, but he
is adamant that he's 6'5" (Rice is 6'2" and 200). In Stokes,
quarterback Steve Young sees a target "maybe even taller than
six-five," he says, with arms so long that "he expands the
possible catching area by six feet. The future is bigger and
faster, without losing anything. With J.J., you get six-five and
all of the [receiver] package, too."
"You look at him," says Rice, "and then you look at a defensive
back who is maybe five-nine trying to cover him. J.J. has the
height, the size, the speed, and he's very aggressive. It's
intimidating to opponents just to see this guy come to the line
Indeed, when Jerel Jamal Stokes made his NFL debut on Sunday in
Tokyo in the 49ers' American Bowl exhibition game against the
Denver Broncos, he looked like a man among Munchkins in the
Bronco secondary. On the 15 or so routes he ran, he never
appeared to be anything but open. He caught all three passes he
was thrown--the first for 10 yards, the second for 14 (including
the extra 10 yards he bulled for after making the catch) and the
third for 11 yards and a toe stand on the sideline.
By the second reception the 50,000 fans at the Tokyo Dome, with
their limited understanding of American football, were well
aware of the towering gaijin wearing number 83, and a
groundswell of "oooooohs" arose as he turned the crossing
pattern into a big gain. When he made the sideline catch a full
cheer went up--ballet being universally appreciated--and another
roar met the P.A. announcement of his name.
Sunday was a mere shakedown cruise for Stokes, who had been with
the 49ers only 10 days, having held out until July 27 for the
contract he wanted, a seven-year deal worth $8.45 million. All
week during practice sessions in Tokyo, as he labored to absorb
the team playbook, Stokes had confessed to being a bit
overwhelmed. "At UCLA a few words described each play," he said.
"Here, it's sentences. My mind is just spinning." Pointing to an
especially daunting pass play, Stokes said, "To read it is one
thing, but to hear the quarterbacks say the play, so fast, is
boggling. Boggling. And that's just the play; they haven't even
said the formation yet. My main focus is learning the playbook,
and then I'll start asking Jerry questions. I'll probably be his
shadow--after I learn this."
If the 49ers haven't openly proclaimed Stokes to be the next
Rice, their actions shout otherwise. In their all-out blitz to
draft Stokes, the Niners ignored serious needs at running back
(having lost free-agent Ricky Watters to the Philadelphia
Eagles) and on the defensive line in order to further strengthen
the receiving corps of Rice and fellow veteran John Taylor.
For coach George Seifert, the choice had more to do with
bolstering the foundation of the team than with filling an
immediate need. "Where some clubs depend on the great running
backs, we've always depended on the great receivers and
quarterbacks," he says.
And though Seifert dismisses the Stokes-Rice comparisons as "one
of the burdens of being a Number 1 draft choice," he
understands them. "Being with the San Francisco 49ers puts J.J.
in the position where he will be following Jerry Rice," says
Seifert. "Just as Steve Young followed Joe Montana."
Unlike Rice, who started immediately back in 1985, Stokes will
be brought along at his own pace. Rice and Taylor, the best
wideout tandem in the NFL over the past seven years, will
continue to start, and the shoes Stokes will be asked to fill
most often this season will be those of Watters, who caught 66
passes coming out of the backfield in 1994. In passing
situations the rookie will join Rice and Taylor to give the 49er
offense the most daunting three-wideout set in the NFL.
As he gains experience, Stokes is at first likely to become the
next Taylor. Stokes will spend a fair amount of time
apprenticing under Taylor at split end, on the opposite side of
the line from Rice, who normally lines up at flanker. Taylor,
33, is expected to retire after this season, and he has taken
the rookie under his wing. "I am just returning something to a
younger guy that was given to me when I got here, by Jerry and
by Dwight Clark," says Taylor.
Such is the almost apostolic nature of the San Francisco
receiver tradition, which runs "as long as I can remember," says
Seifert, "all the way back to R.C. Owens," in the late 1950s.
Even Rice, who still has two years left on his contract and at
32 shows no sign of slowing down, is doing his part to nurture
the legacy. "When I came in," he says, "Dwight Clark and Freddie
Solomon didn't show any animosity toward me. They molded me into
the player I am today. So I don't mind passing the tradition
down to J.J. We're going to work together, we're going to get
better, and it's going to be exciting just to watch this guy
Only next year, after Taylor retires, is Stokes expected to
start, in tandem with Rice. Then the comparisons are sure to
abound. "Jerry Rice is the best who's ever played," says Clark,
now the club's vice president for football operations. "It's
hard to compare anybody with him. J.J. can make the tough
catches, he can run after he makes the catch, he's great in the
red zone. Those are all things that have made Jerry the
greatest. It's hard to say if J.J. is as talented. His talents
are still developing."
Clark also points out that Stokes has deceptive speed.
Translation: His time in the 40 won't earn him a spot in the
NFL's Fastest Man contest. In fact, the predraft knock on Stokes
was that he was downright slow. But, says 49er receivers coach
Larry Kirksey, "that's the same thing they were saying about
Jerry when he was coming out." As a prospect, Rice was timed at
4.65 seconds in the 40, leaving some teams leery of the
youngster from Mississippi Valley State. This spring, word got
around that Stokes was in the neighborhood of 4.7, though a 49er
scout timed him at 4.54--not blazing, but plenty quick for the
San Francisco system.
"In this offense," Clark says of the Niners' short- to
medium-range precision passing attack, "the point is to be in
the right place and then be able to run after the catch. That's
more important than blazing speed is to, say, a Raider offense."
"It's kind of funny how people just keep mentioning my times in
the 40," says Stokes. "If they want to keep saying that, they
can. I'll be laughing in the end zone."
At UCLA, Stokes missed five games of his senior season with a
deep thigh bruise, and yet he set school career records with 154
catches, 2,469 yards and 28 touchdowns. "All we knew," says
Clark, "was that when J.J. was in a game, [the Bruins] won, and
when he wasn't in a game, they lost. He was the difference-maker."
"Above all, he is an exceptional runner with the ball," says
Homer Smith, Stokes's offensive coordinator during his first
three years at UCLA and now a coach at Alabama. "I remember one
game in which he made a 90-yard run. He got halfway, stopped,
shook off all the tacklers and started over again."
So what does Stokes have to do to become the next Jerry Rice?
Who better to ask than the current one? "So far, what I see is
his work ethic," says the eight-time All-Pro. "If he stays
focused and continues to work, he has the attitude that's going
to get him to another level."
But can Stokes--or anyone--truly reach the level that Rice alone
Rice ponders. "Yeah," he says. "You've always got receivers out
there who are very talented and can make the plays. And they can
break the records. J.J. might be the guy."