GREEN BAY, Wis. — Defensive coordinator Joe Barry called it a “champagne problem.”
Sunday could be the first time since Week 9 of last season that the Packers have cornerback Eric Stokes at their disposal. The “problem” for the Packers is that they already have three established veteran cornerbacks on the outside and at nickel with no clear spot for a recent first-round pick to see substantial snaps.
Stokes, the 2021 first-rounder out of Georgia, suffered a season-ending foot injury against the Detroit Lions last season that required Lisfranc surgery. He missed the first four games of this season while on the physically unable to perform list. Stokes said his original goal was to be ready by Week 1, but he suffered multiple setbacks during preseason, namely several hamstring injuries.
“I kept feeling like I got closer and closer to making it back and boom, something else would happen,” Stokes said. “It’s just like, ‘Dang.’ Throughout this whole thing, I feel like it taught me patience more than anything, to where I feel like I’m ready.”
Stokes returned to practice on Oct. 3, when he was officially designated to return from the PUP list. That opened his 21-day window, during which the Packers must either activate Stokes to the 53-man roster or shut him down for the season. The deadline to do so is early next week. Stokes doesn’t necessarily have to join the active roster before the Packers (2-3) visit the Broncos (1-5) on Sunday, but this week is the first realistic chance Stokes has of playing in a game since his injury last November.
Stokes played markedly well as a rookie in 2021 after surpassing Kevin King on the cornerback depth chart, but he struggled mightily in the first half of last season. As the Packers ease Stokes back into the rotation after not playing in almost a full calendar year, it makes sense to give him spot snaps while the guys who’ve handled a massive workload continue doing so.
“Just another baller,” cornerback Rasul Douglas said of what the Packers are getting with Stokes back. “We know he’s going to get out there and he’s going to hold his own, and he’s going to be goofy and turn it up.”
Aaron Jones is practicing following the bye week after missing last Monday’s game.
Darnell Savage is practicing after leaving early with a calf injury.
Quay Walker (knee, left early Monday) and De’Vondre Campbell (ankle, DNP last two games) working on the side with trainers. pic.twitter.com/JHz6AUDqi4
— Matt Schneidman (@mattschneidman) October 16, 2023
But even when Stokes is healthy enough to play without restrictions, there’s no apparent spot for him to get the full buffet of snaps a defensive back normally does.
The Packers aren’t benching Jaire Alexander or Douglas at outside cornerback and they appear to be high on Keisean Nixon, who has played 65 percent of the defensive snaps this season (he’d never played more than 30 percent of them in a season in his career, and never more than 15 percent in his three years with the Raiders before arriving in Green Bay last season). So where does that leave a guy who general manager Brian Gutekunst used his first pick on just two years ago?
“Last year, they hit it off towards the end,” Stokes said of his fellow cornerbacks. “They went on a big run towards the end and they were flying around doing great, so I really knew coming back like, man, ‘It don’t matter where I’m at. I just want to be back out there with y’all. I miss y’all so much.’ I don’t care where I’m at, where I fill in. I know for a fact when I’m back out there, you’re going to get 110 percent of me, though. I’m finna go ahead and show any little impact I can, any little thing I can to show that I’m valuable.”
The most likely places the Packers find snaps for Stokes as of now (barring injuries to Alexander, Douglas or Nixon) are, as he mentioned, on special teams and when Green Bay plays dime with six defensive backs. Stokes, whose 40-yard dash in 2021 was clocked in the low 4.2s, said he had been able to run full speed since training camp started in late July and isn’t worried about losing any of the speed after an arduous rehab process that at one time had him in a wheelchair. That speed, even if in a limited role on special teams starting on Sunday, has to be at least of some value.
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If the Packers were hell-bent on incorporating Stokes into the rotation once he’s built back up, though, the most likely odd man out would be Nixon, who’s playing the nickel to this extent for the first time in his career. However, defensive passing game coordinator Greg Williams doesn’t seem inclined to move Nixon after his first five games.
“He has a special skill set,” Williams said of Nixon. “He’s a guy that can cover. He’s a guy that can be physical and tackle in the box. He’s got ball skills, so he does have what you like, with his short-area quickness as well. He has what you like as far as a nickel goes, as far as being versatile from a coverage standpoint and in the run game, being able to tackle, being in run support, so I think he’s done a good job.”
NFL team tiers through Week 6 (pending MNF). The Dolphins are in a league of their own offensively. Same for the Browns defensively. And the Giants are the worst team in the NFL. pic.twitter.com/9oJsKcth5w
— Chad Graff (@ChadGraff) October 16, 2023
As for Stokes, Williams sees the same player he scouted while with the Cardinals, one who’s fast and can cover well. But that skill set didn’t equate to much worthwhile on the field the last time Stokes was healthy. He’ll need to prove again that he can be the player Green Bay was so high on in 2021 to get back between the white lines.
“There’s really no substitute for playing football,” Williams said. “You can train all you want, but there’s really no substitute for playing football, so we just have to evaluate it day by day with Eric and how he feels and just building up that callous of covering every day, covering down to down and then it’s a good problem to have — to have too many good corners. I think a lot of guys in the league would love to have that issue. Once we get to that point, we’ll figure out what to do and how to integrate him, but right now, I don’t mind having that problem.”
Stokes continued to practice on Monday as the Packers returned from their bye week. Running back Aaron Jones, who didn’t play last Monday against the Raiders, also practiced during the media viewing window. Safety Darnell Savage Jr. did, as well, after he left Monday’s game early with a calf injury and didn’t return.
Inside linebackers Quay Walker and De’Vondre Campbell were working on the side with separate trainers during the open portion of practice. Walker left the game in Las Vegas early with a knee injury and didn’t return (he had a helmet with him and participated in the team’s pre-practice stretch), while Campbell didn’t have a helmet or stretch with the team after missing the last two games with an ankle injury.
The team doesn’t release an injury report until Wednesday, so we don’t yet know if Walker was a full DNP or a limited participant, or if the likes of Jones, Savage and others were limited or full participants in the first practice of the week.
(Photo: Bradley Collyer / Getty Images)
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