As he gains experience, Stokes is at first likely to become the next Taylor. Stokes will spend a fair amount of time apprenticing under Taylor at split end, on the opposite side of the line from Rice, who normally lines up at flanker. Taylor, 33, is expected to retire after this season, and he has taken the rookie under his wing. "I am just returning something to a younger guy that was given to me when I got here, by Jerry and by Dwight Clark," says Taylor.
Such is the almost apostolic nature of the San Francisco receiver tradition, which runs "as long as I can remember," says Seifert, "all the way back to R.C. Owens," in the late 1950s. Even Rice, who still has two years left on his contract and at 32 shows no sign of slowing down, is doing his part to nurture the legacy. "When I came in," he says, " Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon didn't show any animosity toward me. They molded me into the player I am today. So I don't mind passing the tradition down to J.J. We're going to work together, we're going to get better, and it's going to be exciting just to watch this guy grow."
Only next year, after Taylor retires, is Stokes expected to start, in tandem with Rice. Then the comparisons are sure to abound. " Jerry Rice is the best who's ever played," says Clark, now the club's vice president for football operations. "It's hard to compare anybody with him. J.J. can make the tough catches, he can run after he makes the catch, he's great in the red zone. Those are all things that have made Jerry the greatest. It's hard to say if J.J. is as talented. His talents are still developing."
Clark also points out that Stokes has deceptive speed. Translation: His time in the 40 won't earn him a spot in the NFL's Fastest Man contest. In fact, the predraft knock on Stokes was that he was downright slow. But, says 49er receivers coach Larry Kirksey, "that's the same thing they were saying about Jerry when he was coming out." As a prospect, Rice was timed at 4.65 seconds in the 40, leaving some teams leery of the youngster from Mississippi Valley State. This spring, word got around that Stokes was in the neighborhood of 4.7, though a 49er scout timed him at 4.54—not blazing, but plenty quick for the San Francisco system.
"In this offense," Clark says of the Niners' short-to medium-range precision passing attack, "the point is to be in the right place and then be able to run after the catch. That's more important than blazing speed is to, say, a Raider offense."
"It's kind of funny how people just keep mentioning my times in the 40," says Stokes. "If they want to keep saying that, they can. I'll be laughing in the end zone."
At UCLA, Stokes missed five games of his senior season with a deep thigh bruise, and yet he set school career records with 154 catches, 2,469 yards and 28 touchdowns. "All we knew," says Clark, "was that when J.J. was in a game, [the Bruins] won, and when he wasn't in a game, they lost. He was the difference-maker."
"Above all, he is an exceptional runner with the ball," says Homer Smith, Stokes's offensive coordinator during his first three years at UCLA and now a coach at Alabama. "I remember one game in which he made a 90-yard run. He got halfway, stopped, shook off all the tacklers and started over again."
So what does Stokes have to do to become the next Jerry Rice? Who better to ask than the current one? "So far, what I see is his work ethic," says the eight-time All-Pro. "If he stays focused and continues to work, he has the attitude that's going to get him to another level."
But can Stokes—or anyone—truly reach the level that Rice alone has attained?