Green Bay Packers

For Packers' Eric Stokes, The Time Is Now

Photo credit: Samantha Madar (USA TODAY Sports)

In early May, the Green Bay Packers declined to pick up the fifth-year option on cornerback Eric Stokes after an underwhelming first three years in the league, mainly due to injury. Seemingly healthy and eager to prove his worth, Stokes has all the motivation in the world to have a standout season in 2024 under new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley.

It was perhaps the least surprising move of Green Bay’s offseason, given his injury history, but Stokes became one of 14 players from the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft class to have their fifth-year option declined. He only played in 12 games total over the past two seasons. Needing to decide on Year 5 before Year 5, Green Bay general manager Brian Gutekunst didn’t have enough sample size to warrant over $12 million guaranteed in 2025.

Like Christian Watson, Stokes is an incredible athlete, but lingering hamstring issues have slowed him down. Watson and Stokes visited specialists at UW-Madison this offseason. Watson found out that his muscles were different sizes and worked to balance that disparity to improve his hamstring health. However, Stokes’ diagnosis focused on his feet, which weren’t strong enough following a 2022 Lisfranc injury to support the stress on his hamstrings.

“It was dealing with everything from the foot injury that I had,” Stokes said. “It was bouncing back from that. It’s crazy how everything is connected in your body to where if one area is weak, the other parts of your body will try to take control, or put more workload on it.”

Playing alongside Jaire Alexander, the highest-paid cornerback in the league, the uncertainty surrounding Stokes’ future was enough to question whether or not to agree to the fifth-year option. Doing so would have slotted in Stokes as approximately the 13th-highest-paid cornerback in the league. Given the inspiring play out of seventh-round rookie Carrington Valentine last season, the front office had a far less expensive alternative. Still, they didn’t rule out the possibility of an extension past the fourth year if things seem to turn.

With a make-or-break year ahead of him, Stokes has every motivation to be as successful as possible. He has an opportunity to prove his worth to a front office that didn’t commit to his fifth-year option, and he also can earn a substantial payday. Cornerbacks generally fall in the middle of the pack in terms of average salary by position. They usually come in behind quarterback, wideout, offensive line, and edge rushers, but they still can make plenty of money.

Initial reports are certainly working in Stokes’ favor. During offseason workout program, Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur had nothing but great things to say about his young cornerback’s approach to the offseason.

“I think he’s as good as I’ve ever seen him. Both mentally and on the field,” LaFleur said. “He looks fully healthy. He’s doing a great job challenging our receivers. He’s always in phase, and I think you can see the personality coming back…he’s had a chance to really develop his body, and he looks in great shape. The play says the same.”

Known for his 4.25 40-yard-dash speed coming out of the University of Georgia, Stokes has commented that he feels even faster this year if that’s at all possible.

“My confidence still high,” Stokes said on Wednesday. “At the end of the day, I know what I can do. Everything else, it is what it is. I just had to get back healthy. Now that I’m back healthy, everything else is good.”

If Stokes comes in as healthy as everyone says, he certainly can be a difference-maker under Hafley. The Packers focused on overhauling the safety position in the offseason, signing Xavier McKinney and drafting Javon Bullard, Evan Williams, and Kitan Oladapo to bring in about as much competition as possible at safety while declining to bring in any true competition at corner. There’s always been an institutional belief that Stokes is capable, given his gifts and promising rookie season. Still, seeing a seventh-rounder come in and hold his own couldn’t have been the easiest spot for a first-rounder. Valentine was more than serviceable as a rookie, but the ceiling for Stokes remains much higher, making the CB2 job certainly there for the taking.

Stokes is still barely 25 years old and entering his fourth season. If you go by Green Bay’s tried-and-true adage of draft and develop, he simply hasn’t had a chance to do the latter. Being laid up with injuries for the better part of two seasons hasn’t prevented Stokes from absorbing the mental and off-the-field aspects of being an NFL player. Now that his body has caught up, the sky is the limit for Stokes this upcoming season.

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