NFL Draft: UGA cornerback Eric Stokes goes from 3-star recruit to first round pick

Marc Weiszer
Athens Banner-Herald
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Dec 12, 2020; Columbia, Missouri, USA; Georgia defensive back Eric Stokes (27) returns an interception against the Missouri Tigers during the first half at Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium. Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Stokes’ blazing, attention-grabbing speed in the lead up to Thursday’s NFL draft combined with the playmaking ability displayed last season helped vault the UGA cornerback into an NFL first round draft pick.

The Green Bay Packers used the No. 29 overall selection to take the former three-star prospect who developed into a first-team All-SEC pick last season.

"When Green Bay called me there was just a big smile and I'm telling everybody to be quiet," Stokes, who was with family and friends in his hometown of Covington, told reporters after he was drafted. "They were all screaming and really excited. I'm just trying to tell them to be quiet and keep calm. It was just a surreal moment."

More:UGA's Azeez Ojulari wasn't taken in NFL Draft's first round. 'Somebody will make a smart move'

Stokes was the only Georgia player to go on day one when the 32 picks of the first round were held.

Pass rusher Azeez Ojulari and cornerback Tyson Campbell will be expected to go in the second round that starts at 7 p.m. Friday. Offensive guard Ben Cleveland and linebacker Monty Rice are among those from Georgia that could also go in the first three rounds.

Stokes was the fifth cornerback selected in the draft. Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst called Stokes a "rare athlete."

"He was standing out like a sore thumb on our board," he said.

Georgia went 20 years between cornerbacks going in the NFL first round until 2019.

Now the Bulldogs have another in Stokes after Deandre Baker went two years ago. The last UGA cornerback to go in the first round before that was Champ Bailey in 1999.

Stokes is the first Georgia player drafted by Green Bay since defensive end Jarius Wynn in the sixth round in 2009 and the first ever to go to the Packers in the first round.

It came on a day where Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers was in the news after an NFL Network report that he didn't want to return to the team. Gutekunst fielded seven questions about Rodgers before getting one about Stokes.

Stokes had a couple of Zooms with the Packers and spoke of knowing about the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field and diehard fans wearing cheeseheads.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart and then defensive coordinator Mel Tucker viewed Stokes at Eastside High as a “raw, talented guy right down the road,” Smart said.

“I can't tell you that season how many times I went back and watched him in camp from when he was here, his high school highlight tapes when he would take a ball at running back and just out run everybody,” Smart said.

The Packers studied game film particularly of Stokes against Alabama this year and LSU in 2019 against offenses with three wide receivers that went in the first round Thursday night.

"I've already played against NFL type receivers in the SEC," Stokes said. "It doesn't get better from a college standpoint than the SEC. I know for a fact I've already been prepared for this the last four years."

Stokes was timed with a sub-4.3 40 at Georgia’s Pro Day.

"The 4.29 gets your attention," Gutekunst said. "He's such a genuine human being. I think Packers fans are going to love him."

"He was always fast,” Smart said. “That wasn't the question mark, but what he did is he improved a lot of areas where he wasn't great and became a much better player."

The 6-foot, 1/2 , 194-pound Stokes used that speed to return two of his four interceptions last season for touchdowns as a redshirt junior in only nine games. As a redshirt freshman, he blocked a punt that he returned for a touchdown at Missouri.

Smart said Georgia viewed Stokes as an “athlete,” more than a defensive back out of high school.

 “The tape said here's a really long person that's really fast and he's a good kid and he's less than an hour away from us,” Smart said. “He also had won the 100 meters so there's some verified speed there. He came in and most kids don't believe in redshirting, don't want to redshirt. He developed. Mel was very patient with him. Mel taught him.”

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