GREEN BAY — Eric Stokes has handled just about everything his first NFL season has thrown at him.
Transitioning to the pro game? Check.
Impressing Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams as the NFL’s best quarterback-receiver duo constantly targeted him throughout training camp? Check.
Taking over for one of the league’s best young shutdown corners in Jaire Alexander and holding his own against a parade of top-flight receivers? Check.
Dog training? Well …
Yes, for as seamlessly as the Green Bay Packers’ first-round draft pick has assimilated into the defense — and taken on the role at times of No. 1 cornerback amid injuries to Alexander and Kevin King — he’s struggling at home with his red Doberman Pinscher puppy, Bolt, whom Stokes adopted following the Oct. 28 win at Arizona.
“And right now, it’s a headache. I ain’t going to lie to you,” Stokes said with a smile as the Packers prepped for Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings — and rising receiving star Justin Jefferson — at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. “It’s definitely a headache.”
That was definitely the case one morning last week, when Stokes was getting ready to leave home for Lambeau Field for a mid-week practice day and he noticed a particularly guilty-looking Bolt in the hallway after an unproductive walk outside moments earlier.
“I knew something was up when he was standing by my bathroom door just looking at me. Most of the time, he’s running around, chewing his toy,” Stokes recounted. “So I looked at him like, ‘All right, man, there’s something up.’ I come around the corner and I’m on my phone, talking to my agent, and that’s when I looked up and there’s just a big turd, just sitting there. And I was just like, ‘Well, dang, it’s this type of morning I can see.’ That wasn’t a good morning.
“He’s keeping me up on my toes right now.”—
That’s exactly what Stokes is doing to opposing receivers — minus the messy clean-up, of course — right now. After playing only eight defensive snaps in the season-opening loss to the New Orleans Saints in Jacksonville, Stokes has played 491 snaps in the last nine games despite missing the team’s Nov. 7 loss at Kansas City with a knee injury he suffered during pregame warmups. All told, with Alexander sidelined by a shoulder injury since Oct. 3 and King having missed half the season with a concussion and a shoulder injury of his own, Stokes’ 78.7% play-time percentage is the highest of any cornerback on the roster.
“We’ve got a rookie doing some stuff that we would hardly ever do with young guys. I think he’s done a great job,” defensive backs coach Jerry Gray said. “He’ll get beat on some plays, and then he’ll come back and then make a great fourth-down stop. When you see young guys don’t get rattled — I really attribute that to training camp, when he was going against Adams and Aaron Rodgers and he didn’t get rattled — the game is a little different in the game. I think he’s done a great job.”
The numbers would bear that out. According to Pro Football Reference, Stokes has allowed 27 receptions on 54 targets for 347 yards with two touchdowns and an interception for an opposing passer rating of 75.2.
Count Adams among those who aren’t surprised by the speedy rookie’s ability to not only keep up with receivers but use his elite speed to recover when he is beaten.
“He’s doing a lot of what I expected him to do based off what I saw early,” Adams said this week. “He’s putting a lot into his craft. He’s definitely owning up on that, having guys like Jaire in front of him helps a lot. Just kind of seeing the way he navigates, small things like that, just locking in on the details.”
Unlike previous defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who would frequently match Alexander up with the opponent’s best receiver, Joe Barry prefers to let his corners stay on a particular side, which perhaps has allowed Stokes to get more comfortable. He’ll be challenged on Sunday regardless of who lines up across from him as the Vikings can attack with Jefferson (55 receptions, 775 yards, four touchdowns) or Adam Thielen (50 receptions, 542 yards, seven TDs).
“I just love how he competes every day,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “He brings it in practice. He’s always got a smile on his face. He embraces the opportunity, embraces the challenge and I think you see that on gameday, as well.
“He’s getting better and better and we’re going to have to get his best this week because those two wideouts are as good as it gets.”
Bakhtiari sits again
Matt LaFleur never said that franchise left tackle David Bakhtiari might not play this season, but he never said Bakhtiari would definitely play this season.
Bakhtiari, who is coming back reconstructive knee surgery to repair a torn left ACL suffered during a Dec. 31 practice near the end of last season, once again didn’t take part in practice, marking the third straight he’s missed.
After returning to practice on Oct. 21 and being activated from the physically unable to perform list on Nov. 10 at the end of the three-week practice window, Bakhtiari seemed on track to return to action last week against Seattle.
That didn’t happen, and now it’s almost certain he won’t play against the Vikings.
Asked directly if Bakhtiari might miss the entire season, LaFleur replied: “Well, I mean, shoot, that’s a long time from now. So, I sure as heck hope he’s able to go at some point and, like I said, day to day.”