If the San Francisco 49ers are reluctant to dub J.J. Stokes the next Jerry Rice, perhaps it is because that would be far too great a burden to place on the young man's shoulders. It might also be the height of irreverence—after all, Rice, going into his 11th season, remains yards ahead of anyone else who might claim to be the best receiver in NFL history. But in his prideful way Rice himself provides the most telling assessment of Stokes. "I think," says Rice, "that if I had his size, I would be unstoppable."
Stokes is the 49ers' first-round draft choice out of UCLA, a receiver with whom they were so smitten that they traded away a future first-rounder for the first time since 1978, plus this year's first-, third-and fourth-round picks, to move up from the 30th pick to the 10th overall. San Francisco lists Stokes officially—and conservatively—at 6'4" and 217 pounds, but he is adamant that he's 6'5" (Rice is 6'2" and 200). In Stokes, quarterback Steve Young sees a target "maybe even taller than six-five," he says, with arms so long that "he expands the possible catching area by six feet. The future is bigger and faster, without losing anything. With J.J., you get six-five and all of the [receiver] package, too."
"You look at him," says Rice, "and then you look at a defensive back who is maybe five-nine trying to cover him. J.J. has the height, the size, the speed, and he's very aggressive. It's intimidating to opponents just to see this guy come to the line of scrimmage."
Indeed, when Jerel Jamal Stokes made his NFL debut on Sunday in Tokyo in the 49ers' American Bowl exhibition game against the Denver Broncos, he looked like a man among Munchkins in the Bronco secondary. On the 15 or so routes he ran, he never appeared to be anything but open. He caught all three passes he was thrown—the first for 10 yards, the second for 14 (including the extra 10 yards he bulled for after making the catch) and the third for 11 yards and a toe stand on the sideline.
By the second reception the 50,000 fans at the Tokyo Dome, with their limited understanding of American football, were well aware of the towering gaijin wearing number 83, and a groundswell of "oooooohs" arose as he turned the crossing pattern into a big gain. When he made the sideline catch a full cheer went up—ballet being universally appreciated—and another roar met the P.A. announcement of his name.
Sunday was a mere shakedown cruise for Stokes, who had been with the 49ers only 10 days, having held out until July 27 for the contract he wanted, a seven-year deal worth $8.45 million. All week during practice sessions in Tokyo, as he labored to absorb the team playbook, Stokes had confessed to being a bit overwhelmed. "At UCLA a few words described each play," he said. "Here, it's sentences. My mind is just spinning." Pointing to an especially daunting pass play, Stokes said, "To read it is one thing, but to hear the quarterbacks say the play, so fast, is boggling. Boggling. And that's just the play; they haven't even said the formation yet. My main focus is learning the playbook, and then I'll start asking Jerry questions. I'll probably be his shadow—after I learn this."
If the 49ers haven't openly proclaimed Stokes to be the next Rice, their actions shout otherwise. In their all-out blitz to draft Stokes, the Niners ignored serious needs at running back (having lost free-agent Ricky Watters to the Philadelphia Eagles) and on the defensive line in order to further strengthen the receiving corps of Rice and fellow veteran John Taylor.
For coach George Seifert, the choice had more to do with bolstering the foundation of the team than with filling an immediate need. "Where some clubs depend on the great running backs, we've always depended on the great receivers and quarterbacks," he says.
And though Seifert dismisses the Stokes-Rice comparisons as "one of the burdens of being a Number 1 draft choice," he understands them. "Being with the San Francisco 49ers puts J.J. in the position where he will be following Jerry Rice," says Seifert. "Just as Steve Young followed Joe Montana."
Unlike Rice, who started immediately back in 1985, Stokes will be brought along at his own pace. Rice and Taylor, the best wideout tandem in the NFL over the past seven years, will continue to start, and the shoes Stokes will be asked to fill most often this season will be those of Watters, who caught 66 passes coming out of the backfield in 1994. In passing situations the rookie will join Rice and Taylor to give the 49er offense the most daunting three-wideout set in the NFL.