After his sophomore slump was cut short by injury, Packers cornerback Eric Stokes needs rebound in 2023
GREEN BAY – On paper, the Green Bay Packers cornerback depth chart looked dominant. Jaire Alexander was back from shoulder injury. Rasul Douglas was back for an encore. Eric Stokes was back from a strong rookie season.
How were opposing quarterbacks going to throw on this trio?
The answer, in hindsight, was surprisingly easy.
Not because the talent in their room was lacking. Alexander was a second-team All-Pro in 2022. Douglas proved the playmaking gene he showed in 2021 was no fluke. Stokes, well. The former first-round pick had a sophomore season that might make fans remember receiver Davante Adams’ struggles as a second-year player. As a whole, something just didn’t click with this group, leading the Packers to finish 15th in the NFL with an opposing passer rating of 88.3.
Average was never the expectation for this secondary. Now the Packers must identify what went wrong, and how to improve in 2023.
The good: Jaire Alexander showed durability after early season injury
After playing only four regular-season games and 219 snaps last season, Jaire Alexander dropped out early Week 3 at Tampa Bay with a pulled groin. When he missed the next week’s game against New England, it was fair to wonder if Alexander might have durability issues. He silenced those questions emphatically, not missing a game the rest of the way. Alexander played 16 games last season, finishing third on the Packers defense with 901 snaps (88.4%). Given the impact of Alexander’s coverage – there’s a reason general manager Brian Gutekunst made Alexander the highest-paid cornerback in NFL history last offseason – his availability each week was of the utmost importance.
The bad: Eric Stokes had disappointing second season
Eric Stokes is hardly the first NFL player to follow a quality rookie season with a sophomore slump, but it’s always surprising when it happens. Even before Stokes’ second season was truncated with knee and ankle injuries Week 9 in Detroit, leaving him in a walking boot and even a wheelchair for weeks, he was having a forgettable year. Stokes’ 14 defended passes as a rookie were three more than Alexander had in his first season, indicating a promising future as a cover corner. Perhaps nothing highlights how far his game dropped in 2022 than the inability to have a single defended pass in 477 snaps. Stokes often looked confused in zone coverage, and more startingly he regressed in man coverage despite good size (6-foot, 194 pounds), length (32 3/4-inch arms) and tremendous speed (4.25 40). His tackling was a significant problem as well. Stokes has all the tools to bounce back in his third season, the way Davante Adams once did, and will get every opportunity. He needs to make the most of his second opportunity.
Biggest need: Decisions at safety could affect depth at cornerback
If Stokes returns to the confident, physical corner he played like as a rookie, it’s tempting to consider cornerback a minor need on the Packers roster. While safety is a much bigger need in the secondary, it’s important for the Packers to build depth behind their top three corners. Keisean Nixon is scheduled to be a free agent, and while his kickoff returns made him an All-Pro, he didn’t just inject life into the Packers special teams. Nixon was a solid depth option as a slot corner in 289 snaps, something the Packers would miss if he departs. The Packers need to mitigate a possibility Stokes’ sophomore slump carries into his third season. There’s also the possibility Rasul Douglas could be more valuable to the defense as a safety, which would make cornerback a bigger need. If Brian Gutekunst thinks the draft provides more value at corner than safety, a Douglas move could become an even more attractive option. It’s likely the Packers run back their trio at corner, but filling the depth chart behind them is necessary.
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Jaire Alexander: After missing most of 2021 with shoulder injury, signed four-year, $84 million contract last offseason that made him highest-paid cornerback in NFL history per annual salary. Flashes of dominance in coverage were not as consistent as in past, but developed other parts of game that earned him second-team All-Pro selection. Became a playmaker last season, attacking passes unlike ever before. Five interceptions equaled his total from first four seasons. A ball hunter, showed tremendous range in secondary. Tracked Justin Fields pass across the field for game-sealing interception in Week 2. Traveled across field for second interception of season against Josh Allen in Buffalo. Baited Jared Goff into throwing interception a week later, sitting on deep over route to Amon-Ra St. Brown. Sealed late-season victory in Chicago with another fourth-quarter interception against Fields. Picked overthrown pass from Tua Tagovailoa two weeks later, helping spark comeback victory. Propensity to fall asleep in coverage led to occasional deep ball. Beat against Equanimeous St. Brown for downfield catch in both games against Bears, the first on flea flicker. Also beat on deep ball against N’Keal Harry in Chicago after jumping underneath route. Allowed 35-yard touchdown catch against Dallas receiver Ceedee Lamb after getting beat on inside-out move. Beat deep against Treylon Burks on game-clinching catch before 2-minute warning one week later against Tennessee. Rough day against Washington, beat for 37-yard touchdown in man coverage down right sideline. Later surrendered game-winning catch for 12 yards on third-and-9. After rarely covering Justin Jefferson in Week 1, shut down the All-Pro receiver in late-season rematch against Minnesota Vikings. Highlight of his season, the performance likely solidified Pro Bowl selection. Finished with six catches of at least 20 yards and two touchdown catches allowed, along with two dropped interceptions. Defended 14 passes. A physical tackler earlier in career, became more selective after shoulder injury with seven missed tackles in 63 chances. Made business decision at goal line against Derrick Henry, allowing touchdown run. Missed tackle against Jaylen Waddle down right sideline on long touchdown catch and run in Miami. Still showed willingness to tackle, recording tackle for loss against New York Giants tailback Saquon Barkley on screen pass. Later held Barkley to 1-yard gain on hard tackle at line of scrimmage. Four tackles for loss tied for most among cornerbacks. No pass-interference penalties, but bad unnecessary roughness penalty for late hit out of bounds prolonging touchdown drive before halftime in Detroit. Talked a big game but mostly backed it up with play on field, able to Waddle against Jaylen Waddle and Griddy against Justin Jefferson late in season. Grade: B-plus
Rasul Douglas: Signed three-year, $21 million contract last offseason after breakout 2021. Started season playing in slot, showing he’s better when lining up on perimeter. Left Justin Jefferson wide open for touchdown in opener at Minnesota, playing man-to-man coverage when rest of secondary was in zone. Bit on out-and-up route against Stefon Diggs in Buffalo, allowing 26-yard touchdown pass against Josh Allen. Allowed scores because of overly soft coverage against Dallas and Los Angeles. Showed he still has playmaking gene, intercepting four passes and forcing a fumble. Baited Tua Tagovailoa into game-winning interception in Miami, peeling off Tyreek Hill slant to undercut throw to tight end Mike Gesicki down right sideline. Had scoop and score fumble erased by Eric Stokes holding penalty in Washington. Savvy veteran, occasionally outsmarted the game. Lateraled to Jaire Alexander after intercepting Josh Allen in Buffalo. Later in season, tossed blind lateral while being spun to ground after interception against Los Angeles, losing big chunk of yardage. Defensive holding penalty wiped out Jarran Reed strip sack against Giants. Later penalized for late hit in same game, setting up first-and-goal. Punched Lions lineman Dan Skipper before field-goal attempt in finale. Four defensive holding penalties. Two illegal use of hands penalties. Finished with eight catches of at least 20 yards and seven touchdown passes allowed. Dropped two interceptions in Washington. Defended 13 passes. Missed nine tackles in 94 chances. Allowed touchdown after missing tackle against Philadelphia Eagles receiver A.J. Brown. Missed tackle on Jaylen Waddle touchdown. Four tackles for loss tied for most among cornerbacks. Grade: B-minus
Keisean Nixon: Best kick returner in NFL also solid in 289 snaps at cornerback. Slot corner played with good physicality and quickness to match smaller, speedier receivers inside. Forced fumble against Tampa Bay receiver Russell Gage. Later in same game, prevented touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman in end zone. Allowed potential game-tying touchdown to Gage when picked off line of scrimmage. Lone missed tackle of season came on Justin Fields touchdown run in Chicago. Later sealed victory with interception against Fields, his lone pick. Defended two passes. Allowed one touchdown and two catches of at least 20 yards. One defensive holding penalty. Forced an offensive holding penalty in run pursuit at Detroit. Grade: C
Eric Stokes: In second season, regressed after strong rookie year. Struggled in man and zone coverage, appearing lost in secondary at times. Slow to diagnose and react to routes, allowed touchdown against Justin Jefferson in opener after leaving left flat uncovered. Later in opener allowed catch against Adam Thielen on deep post route. Misplayed two-point conversion in Tampa Bay, covering wrong receiver in end zone. Beat in man coverage down right sideline for 41-yard catch against New York Jets receiver Corey Davis after biting on out route. Covered wrong receiver in stack formation for third-down touchdown to Antonio Gibson, allowing touchdown against Washington. Holding penalty nullified Rasul Douglas scoop and score fumble recovery in same game. Also flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Washington. Poor tackler, missing seven in 33 chances. No tackles for loss. Blocked inside on Saquon Barkley game-winning touchdown run from wildcat, losing contain leverage. Finished with four catches of at least 20 yards and two touchdowns allowed in nine games. Season ended with knee injury in Detroit. Grade: D-plus
Shemar Jean-Charles: Former fifth-round pick played only three snaps in five games, down from 37 snaps in 14 games as rookie. Special-teams contributions decreased even more. Just 231 special-teams reps ranked sixth on team as rookie. Just 72 reps last season. Missed five games because of ankle injury, but a healthy scratch in final five games. Grade: Incomplete
Corey Ballentine: Fourth-year safety signed to Packers practice squad in late September. Promoted to active roster in November. Played 17 snaps in eight games, 12 in mop-up time against Minnesota Vikings. Added 106 special-teams reps. Didn’t leave good impression in limited sample size. Partly responsible for Vikings receiver Jalen Nailor’s 47-yard touchdown catch, dragging too soft in coverage down left sideline with safety help over top. Allowed 9-yard touchdown for Vikings receiver K.J. Osborn on slant route shortly after. Did recover fumbled punt one week later in finale against Detroit. Grade: Incomplete