Is Eric Stokes The Missing Link On The Packers Defense?

The Packers defensive unit has been improving over the last few years, but their shortcomings in the NFCCG show they are still at least one player away... could Eric Stokes be that player?

For the past lifetime, it's felt like the Packers have had a great offense and were hampered by their defense.

Thanks to a free agent splurge and heavy drafting, the defense has improved from abysmal to decent to actually pretty good over the last few years.

Entering 2020, the big concern was run defense, but, despite not adding defensive linemen, the unit improved from player development, coaching, and scheme tweaks. The Packers were a respectable 13th in the league (tied Washington), in rushing yards allowed. Outside of one Vikings game, the rush defense never really seemed like a major issue throughout the year.

On the defensive line, Kenny Clark set the tone and supporting role players held up ok. At inside linebacker, Kamal Martin and Krys Barnes were revelations as rookies and look like a solid starting duo for the future.

The pass defense was what burned them in the playoffs, but that may not be the case this year.

On the edge, Za'Darius Smith has played at a Pro Bowl level since his arrival and, while Preston Smith has been inconsistent at times, he's been an asset and Rashan Gary has been an ascending player.

That leaves the secondary.

In a passing league, this is among the most important parts of a defense.

Jaire Alexander is the the undisputed leader of the group and PFF rates him as the best outside corner in the league.

On the back end, Adrian Amos has exceeded expectations since arriving as a free agent and Darnell Savage showed a lot of growth in his second season. By the end of the year, these guys were rated as the two best cover safeties in the league over the latter portion of the season (Amos was the best overall for the entire year).

That brings us to the 4th spot in the secondary.

Kevin King. 

Listen, I'm a big Kevin King apologist. I think he's a great complement for Jaire, plays a major role in the run defense, and matches up well against taller receivers. His problem is that he lacks elite speed and he's injured a lot, which hurts his production.

I may be his biggest fan, but even I can't deny King was the weak link in the NFCCG.

He gave up the first touchdown of the game to Mike Evans on 3rd and long with bad footwork and a horribly mistimed jump that allowed an under thrown ball to be completed in the end zone.

He got beat deep on a go route before the half with no time remaining because he doesn't have recovery speed.

I don't get too down on King, though. He was playing injured and doing his best because he knew what was on the line and, playing injured, he was still better than the alternative.

But, as much as I'm willing to defend him, it's clear he was the weak link.

Enter Eric Stokes.

With 4.25 speed, he immediately becomes one of the fastest players in the league.

Those kind of jets give him recovery speed that erase deep balls like the one that burned the Packers before the half in the NFCCG. It's the kind of speed that prevents Mike Evans (who has 4.53 speed) from getting by for the touchdown that started the scoring.

It's hard to overstate how fast he is. Eric Stokes is faster than Jaire Alexander (4.38). He's faster than Darnell Savage (4.36). He's even faster than Nick Collins (4.37).

He's the fastest defender the Packers have ever had.

Ever.

It's ludicrous speed, but he's not just some speed merchant that can't play football - he's not an Al Davis prospect. He was a legit shutdown corner in the SEC. Most teams didn't even try to pass on him and the ones that did, had no success.

His PFF man coverage grade in college was 89.3, the best of any cornerback in the draft. In nearly 300 coverage snaps last year, he never allowed a catch longer than 20 yards.

When you pair a guy like that with Jaire Alexander and put the best safety tandem in the NFL behind them, they're gonna be hard to pass on.

Eric Stokes probably won't come in and be an All Pro. He's a rookie - he'll have growing pains and no one is amazing at everything.

He doesn't have Kevin King's size or Kevin King's ability to hold the edge in run support.

But here's the great thing: Kevin King is coming back, too. Stokes doesn't have to be his replacement, he can be his complement.

The Packers have brought in a guy who is strong where King wasn't. They can still use King for his strengths, but they have another option to play when the situations make sense. It's the best of both worlds and gives the team even more flexibility.

In an ascending defensive unit, Eric Stokes can be the missing link that launches them into the league's elite. 

 

 

Bruce Irons has played, coached, and studied football for decades. Author of books such as A Fan's Guide To Understanding The NFL Draft, A Fan's Guide To Understanding The NFL Salary Cap, and A Fan's Guide To NFL Free Agency Hits And Misses, Bruce contributes to CheeseHeadTV and PackersForTheWin.com.

Follow Bruce Irons on Twitter at @BruceIronsNFL.

 

NFL Categories: 
7 points

Comments (36)

Fan-Friendly This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.
Slim11's picture

June 06, 2021 at 11:31 am

I posted this over at APC...

"... but it gives undeserving players jobs..." (This quote came from another poster who mentioned speed was overrated when drafting CBs.)

I am intrigued by this statement because I immediately think of Sam Shields. The NFL thought he was an undeserving player. Signed as an UDFA, Shields' story is well known here. Shields' success in the NFL seems to partially guide the Packers' GM and scouts when it comes to bringing in CB talent.

As a group, GB's CBs are just under 6 feet tall and the average weight is just under 193 lbs. The Packers' safety group averages just under 6'1" tall and average 202 lbs. This is based upon the current roster with seven safeties and eight CBs. (Stokes is included in this group.)

Comparing Stokes' and King's RAS numbers, the 40 times (10 and 20 splits included) seem to say the smaller, lighter CBs have better reaction times and catch-up speed. This is supported by Shields' history. (King's 10/20/40 times are 1.51/2.57/4.43...Stokes' 10/20/40 times are 1.5/2.53/4.25.)

This also suggests a bad utilization scheme by Pettine and Capers. In goal-line situations, maybe it's better to have the taller, slightly heavier safety, or a (healthy) Kevin King-type CB as a nickel or dime DB.

I added some more information in parenthesis.

3 points
3
0
Leatherhead's picture

June 06, 2021 at 03:15 pm

How well do these smaller, lighter guys tackle? Because if half your defenders are DBs, they need to be tacklers. Coverage is important, but 2/3 of passes get completed. The real damage often comes after the catch. Getting a 6’5” 230 lb runner on the ground isn’t as easy as it seems.

I don’t usually mind the completions, but those runs that add another 20 yards really hurt.

2 points
2
0
BruceIrons's picture

June 06, 2021 at 07:30 pm

Shields and Jaire are a coupe of really good cornerbacks who relied on speed rather than size. Neither really struggled against bigger receivers. I'm hoping Stokes fits that mold, too.

King's size is another weapon for that group, and I'm glad they were able to keep him for matchup flexibility.

3 points
3
0
Coldworld's picture

June 06, 2021 at 12:04 pm

Stokes could be an upgrade to our DBs and eventually on the perimeter. I’m not sure he’s the savior simply because the bigger mess is upfront and was at coordinator. The talent in this D was better than Pettine allowed it to be last year. In my view the appointment of Barry doesn’t mean that it’s no longer the front 7 in terms of personnel and usage of them that will be the key to us getting better overall.

7 points
7
0
stockholder's picture

June 06, 2021 at 12:08 pm

It doesn't matter who they get in the secondary. They could even have Woodson and Collins in their prime. And still not go to the super-bowl. The Defensive Line is the only way this team will meet their expectations. Forget the Hold up. If you want to succeed it's always been about the Trench. No team has ever become a dynasty without the Men up front. And as far as speed goes. Past super-bowl winners had the fastest ILB. We don't. When Butler started slowing down. They moved him to safety. Hyde made the move to safety and became an All-Pro. The way I look at. Maybe King should be moved to safety.Especially since Savage loves playing close to the line.

6 points
8
2
jhtobias's picture

June 06, 2021 at 01:36 pm

This is a a great take which most homer's on this site won't like but you are 100 percent correct .. Great teams have a stout defensive line (Which well were not even in the discussion) and a playmaking Inside Linebacker (which well I can't remember since the mid 90's we ever had one maybe Barnett) ..

Agreed you can have the greatest secondary in the world, But not being able to stop the run or to be consistently burned on 3 and 5 by a te or running back won't matter. I agree with this person

5 points
5
0
jannes bjornson's picture

June 06, 2021 at 02:17 pm

Butler was moved from CB to SS by Ray Rhodes to allow him to excel and use his skill set. The drafting of Stokes told me King is an odd fit with the CB room and should be sent into a FS spot. This guy Barry seems to be another member of the coaches benevolence society. We'll see, but I'm not holding my breath, especially after the anemic attempt to solidify the Dline and pull in a legitimate five tech.

3 points
3
0
BruceIrons's picture

June 06, 2021 at 07:35 pm

I'm totally with you on the defensive line.

I feel it's the most important part of a defense. The last two years, I would have taken a defensive lineman where the Packers picked.

However, when I watch last year's NFCCG, the pass rush was so close a number of times. They just needed the DB's to hold on for another half second.

I think Stokes's speed (combined with Jaire's speed, Savage's speed, and Amos's speed, of course), can cover enough for the pass rush to get home.

4 points
4
0
ImaPayne's picture

June 06, 2021 at 12:11 pm

Lets hope Breland who we let go because he wanted to get paid in money, doesnt be the link the Vikes need because he just signed with them.

1 points
1
0
jannes bjornson's picture

June 06, 2021 at 02:21 pm

He gave up three big PIs in the superbowl. He's on the downhill slide. Zimmer wants to flood the zones with CBs this season to slow down the multi-looks. Time to pound the running game down their throats and have the Veteran QB to burn him over the top.

5 points
5
0
BruceIrons's picture

June 06, 2021 at 07:35 pm

I wanted the Packers to keep Breeland, but I don't think he's going to make or break a team.

0 points
0
0
packer132's picture

June 06, 2021 at 07:42 pm

Breeland has had a couple off the field issues including arrest and suspension. I thought he was a good player but glad he's not a Packer.

2 points
2
0
flackcatcher's picture

June 06, 2021 at 01:22 pm

It's not speed per se, but quickness and acceleration inside the 5 yard box of contact that scouts try to measure. Quick twitch, and 1st step are rare even among elite pro secondary types. Among current Packers, Alexander clearly has that. His ability to be in the trail and then suddenly step in pattern for a quick pick is truly impressive. The other major factor is the officiating on pass coverage. Two years out, PI rules are an utter mess, with the NFCC game at Lambeu being example one. The Packers, like most NFL teams are force to play mirror or trail to keep contact with WR to a minimum. Those technique demand quickness and acceleration. So drafting a Stokes under those playing conditions is a no-brainier for the Packers.

7 points
7
0
Leatherhead's picture

June 06, 2021 at 01:36 pm

Bruce, I like your articles but I’m going to have to throw the flag on two of your statements.

1). We were not one player away, we were one PLAY away. If we had a better result on even ONE play out of NINE (0-6 on goal to go, two turnovers, and the bomb that ended the first half) we win that game.

2). Our pass defense is not what lost the Tampa game. 3 second half interceptions and Tampa’s only TD in the half was set up by the Jones fumble. King’s Fail was a bad play, but overall the pass defense did pretty good job against a real good QB.

As regards Stokes, half your defense is the secondary . These guys get hurt so you’d better start the year with a dozen good DBs and hope it’s enough.

10 points
10
0
BruceIrons's picture

June 06, 2021 at 07:39 pm

Fair points.

They were definitely one play away, but I think the biggest reason they lost was Bakhtiari's injury (and Veldheer's illness). If one of those guys was in the game, I think the Packers would have scored a lot more.

Even with that, I think a healthy King (or an upgraded alternative) might have been able to stop at least one of those touchdowns and change the entire complexion of the game.

And you're right - can never have enough DBs (especially the way Sullivan was abused that game), which is why I Was glad to see them pick up more than one in the draft.

1 points
1
0
jannes bjornson's picture

June 06, 2021 at 11:30 pm

Therein lies the rub. A two pick on Jackson and he was a no show for the slot or depth on the perimeter. You need the third CB to produce results; Tyrone Williams in '96, Sam Shields in 2010.

0 points
0
0
Rebecca's picture

June 07, 2021 at 01:16 pm

So all of the other plays by either side are a wash. One could say that about officiating calls, coaching decisions at critical times, etc. The Time Machine doesn’t work that way. If you want one do over, then all of the other plays for the entire game must be done over too! There is no possible other “past” scenario. The plays that happened are in sequence and can’t be done over without altering all the subsequent plays. But you’re right in a dream scenario.

-1 points
0
1
Starrbrite's picture

June 08, 2021 at 12:52 am

I won’t ever agree with leatherhead concerning the importance of special teams, but I agree completely with his comments in this case.

0 points
0
0
Crankbait's picture

June 06, 2021 at 02:00 pm

Packers need stronger trenches..... not better skill players.

2 points
2
0
BruceIrons's picture

June 06, 2021 at 07:40 pm

I agree and I think Bakhtiari's return will help with that.

0 points
0
0
ricky's picture

June 06, 2021 at 03:44 pm

Kevin King is an a very good DB when he has the receiver in front of him. If the receiver gets behind him, he's going to get burned.

3 points
3
0
BruceIrons's picture

June 06, 2021 at 07:41 pm

Yeah, recovery speed isn't his strong suit and he's not the fastest at change of direction. He's good at bodying up head on, taking up space with his reach, and helping in run support. I think he's a great complement for what they're going with Jaire and Stokes.

1 points
1
0
PeteK's picture

June 06, 2021 at 03:54 pm

I have some confidence the D will improve because we will hopefully have a solid new CB( Stokes), rotational gap filler( Slayton ) , and a sophomore improvement from Martin and Barnes.

6 points
6
0
splitpea1's picture

June 06, 2021 at 04:14 pm

Free agent splurge in 2019, yes, but "heavy drafting" the past couple of years--no. Okay, well, Slaton is heavy....

Stokes is certainly a welcome and needed addition, but to suggest he may be the proverbial missing link is probably a little premature. There is too much yet to be determined.

How are the rest of the players going to respond to their new DC? Are we going to have any more meetings where the defensive leaders have to remind him on how to best use their talents?

Which players are going to excel in the "star" position? Is our secondary going to be in position to create more turnovers?

Is Keke going to produce more impact plays with more playing time? Are Barnes and Martin going to continue to improve? Is Slaton going to prove to be useful in certain situations? Is Lowry going to continue to log around 60% of the snaps as he has for the past three years (maybe this is a "link" that should be examined...)?

So in fairness to Stokes--even though he's a first-round pick, I think it's a lot to expect that a rookie CB will be the sole reason the Packers defense flirts with any kind of elite status.

4 points
4
0
jannes bjornson's picture

June 06, 2021 at 11:39 pm

If Stokes and Jaire control the outside quarters, the QBs have to look to the seams and crosses. Savage should be the star guy. Let King scope the movement guys with ( fill-in -the -blanks) the other slot CB.

4 points
4
0
GregC's picture

June 06, 2021 at 04:41 pm

Like Bruce, I am a bit of a Kevin King apologist, and I completely agree with this article. I'm hoping that King's poor performance last season and especially in the NFC championship game was due to him playing injured. Unfortunately, he is not often healthy, and even if he is, Eric Stokes has the potential to be a significant upgrade over King. Considering the level of competition Stokes played against in college, he could even be an upgrade as a rookie. And with his raw talent, maybe he could play some nickel. It's not like Chandon Sullivan has that role locked down. Sullivan was also exposed in the NFL championship game. One of the most galling things about that game was that Troy Aikman, who annoys me as an announcer, correctly predicted that King and Sullivan might very well be exploited in that game. Damn him.

4 points
4
0
BruceIrons's picture

June 06, 2021 at 07:44 pm

Yes! Whenever people say something like "King shouldn't have been out there is he was hurt," I say he was better than the alternative. People scoff and I tell them to go back and watch Sullivan every play. There's a reason the Packers took a cornerback in the 1st and another one on Day 3: they need help.

3 points
3
0
jannes bjornson's picture

June 06, 2021 at 11:45 pm

Stokes neutralized the vaunted 'Bama wideouts that went high in the first round. His movement to the ball remind me of Tramon. He can peddle inside and outside smoothly with his 4.27 speed and fluid hips.

0 points
0
0
MarkinMadison's picture

June 06, 2021 at 05:24 pm

I'd have to re-watch the game, but I felt like Sullivan got picked on early and often, then King later. Hard to say what things will look like this year because I don't know if we really know what the D scheme is going to be. I suspect the new coordinator will bend his system a bit for the talent that he has to work with here. Anyway, yes, Stokes is probably going to be an improvement, but King wasn't the only player who got exploited.

3 points
3
0
BruceIrons's picture

June 06, 2021 at 07:45 pm

I'll save you the pain: yes, Sullivan got picked on early and often. He was a big reason why Tamp kept moving the chains and a big reason why the Packers took 2 cornerbacks in the draft.

1 points
1
0
Leatherhead's picture

June 06, 2021 at 08:40 pm

Teams will always go after the The Weakest Link. You’re always going to have a weakest link. It’s how everybody else responds that matters. Sullivan played a lot of good snaps for us, as did King. Now we’ll hopefully get some good snaps out of Stokes.

If we can keep everybody healthy, and maybe add one more good safety, this secondary could be very good.

2 points
2
0
Somedumbname's picture

June 07, 2021 at 01:43 am

Hopefully Uphoff is as advertised and becomes that one more good safety.

0 points
0
0
jannes bjornson's picture

June 06, 2021 at 11:48 pm

Sullivan is best to survive as a dime corner. They extended him, but there will be competition.

0 points
0
0
TheKanataThrilla's picture

June 06, 2021 at 06:37 pm

He will definitely help. I still see our ILB as weak and a position to be exploited.

4 points
4
0
LambeauPlain's picture

June 07, 2021 at 09:11 am

King is still only 26 years old. I think he still has an upside...he just gets dinged up a lot. He ranked 40th among CBs in tackles last year...most coming from him being targeted 51 times and giving up 35 catches (ranked 67).

I hope he has a good year and stays healthy, but based on Red's continuous improvement in College in a top WR conference, I think he will be playing early and often this season.

It is not KKs fault, but I always see him as the player who caused TT to ignore TJ.

1 points
1
0
BJP's picture

June 07, 2021 at 01:08 pm

The missing link in this defense is to abandon the bend don’t break mindset.

1 points
1
0