As you sink your teeth into which player will take this 2023 Green Bay Packers team over the top by taking the next step, you'll journey through a defense oozing with first-round selections and a blossoming, intriguing collection of talent on offense with sky-high potential.
After further analysis, it's easy to point to Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs and Devonte Wyatt as the primed breakout candidates. Former NFL Scout Bucky Brooks tabbed Wyatt as the only Packer to make his "All-Breakout Team" for 2023 while PFF added Watson and Wyatt to their "All-Breakout Team."
I've also enjoyed the many write-ups on the Doubs breakout season incoming. The new heir to the throne at quarterback, Jordan Love, has routinely looked his way in 2023 OTAs and training camp. Going into his second year, Doubs is being dubbed as "unguardable" at Packers training camp, so the hype is warranted.
Watson, Wyatt, and Doubs will undoubtedly have a notable impact on the success of the 2023 Packers. However, for this team to surprise people in its first season of the post-Aaron Rodgers era, three other names come to mind who will have ample, increased opportunities to make a tremendous difference.
Having his 2022 season cut short after nine games due to a torn meniscus and a Lisfranc injury was not the way Eric Stokes envisioned his sophomore season playing out. But such is life in the NFL with injuries.
Following a favorable rookie campaign in 2021, many expected a breakout second season after Stokes finished first in forced incompletions and first in pass breakups amongst all rookies.
Former NFL cornerback DeAngelo Hall, now the assistant defensive backs coach for the Carolina Panthers following a stint working for NFL Network, named Stokes to his list of breakout second-season cornerbacks due to how he stepped up while fellow cornerback and All-Pro Jaire Alexander missed 13 games in 2021.
"The first-round pick rose to the occasion and played well in Joe Barry's scheme, allowing the second-lowest rate of open targets among all cornerbacks with 25-plus targets (24%) and a passer rating of 78.8 in coverage (second-lowest among rookie CBs in that group), per PFF. He also was one of the 15 highest-graded cornerbacks by PFF in the NFL from Week 12 on (among those with a minimum of 100 snaps)."- DeAngelo Hall, NFL.com
Per SIS, as a rookie, Stokes allowed a 46.3 completion percentage, fifth-best among all NFL cornerbacks. So what happened in year two?
Packers fans who watched every game were left wondering what had happened to Stokes. Teams routinely targeted him and his level of play diminished. It was as if the confidence was gone or he no longer trusted his speed. After all, Alexander was back to playing. Shouldn't it have been easier for Stokes?
Now coming off surgeries for both injuries, the Packers recently received positive news on Stokes's availability. The plan, according to general manager Brian Gutekunst, is to be conservative with bringing back Stokes. But head coach Matt LaFleur is “hopeful” that Stokes will be able to make a training camp debut and come off the PUP list before the end of preseason. If not, he'd be forced to miss the first four games.
If he does suit up, it won't be easy. Stokes will have to earn his spot back across from Alexander. Rasul Douglas continues to shine and Keisean Nixon has stepped in to cover the slot with Stokes out. Rookie Carrington Valentine, who brings a similar skillset as Stokes out of college, has looked sharp in man coverage and running the perimeter with the twos in training camp.
Stokes flashed visible growth throughout 2021, trusting his speed while being able to play under control and with good technique. He'll be entering his third season in Joe Barry's defense and despite the year two struggles, his rookie season proved why the Packers selected him 29th overall in the 2021 draft.
Before 2023 season's end, look for Stokes to reclaim a prominent role in Green Bay's secondary. The confidence should rebound as he works back into the defense, likely via dime packages early on. If Green Bay gets the rookie version of Stokes back, the sky is the limit for Stokes and this defensive back group.