Can the Steelers craft Ross Cockrell into an elite cornerback?


Pittsburgh Steelers’ cornerback Ross Cockrell has come a long way in his two seasons as a professional athlete in the National Football League.

Drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, Cockrell’s rookie season was quite uneventful. The former Duke University standout appeared in only seven games and failed to record a single stat in any of them. With the likes of Leodis McKelvin, Stephon Gilmore, and 2015 second round draft pick Ronald Darby headlining their roster, the Bills were content with releasing him without giving him much time to groom his talents.

Less than a week later, Cockrell would be signed to a Steelers’ secondary that did not possess the talent his former team did.

Pittsburgh was in desperate need of answers at cornerback following the retirement of Ike Taylor, who served as the Steelers’ primary cornerback for many seasons. Injuries reduced him to a shell of his former self in 2014, which resulted in his retirement from the game the next year. The position was fortified with young potential play makers in Senquez Golson and Doran Grant, but a tear in Golson’s labrum and Grant’s placement on the practice squad until the second half of the season, would keep them off the field.

Despite calls from Steelers’ Nation to start Brandon Boykin, who was acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles, Cockrell has more or less become the number one cornerback on the Steelers’ depth chart. Cortez Allen did not fail to live up to his status as a fluke after being placed on the injured/reserve list for the second consecutive year with a knee injury, which left the door wide open for anyone to step up and prove their worth.

What is basically a mulligan for Cockrell’s rookie season, has paid off extremely well for both himself and the Steelers’ defense. The cornerback made a name for himself in Pittsburgh’s week four matchup against the Baltimore Ravens when he recorded his first professional interception off a pass from Joe Flacco intended for Steve Smith.

Later in the evening he would follow that up with a fumble recovery that displayed his impressive hand/eye coordination and footing. His presence on the defense would dramatically increase afterwards.

Cockrell has been the slight glimmer of hope for the future of the Steelers’ cornerback situation as the team enters its final game of the regular season against the Cleveland Browns. William Gay plays his opponents too soft and relies heavily on gamble plays that usually end up snake eyes, Antwon Blake often needs the assistance from the safety position to bail him out of busted plays, and Boykin is on whatever spot of the bench that the coaching staff have selected for him that week.

The Steelers have not taken a cornerback in the first round of the draft since 1997 when they selected Chad Scott. Prepare for that trend to continue in the 2016 draft, as Pittsburgh is known for taking the best player available when they are on the clock. It is very doubtful there will be a talented enough player at the position worth taking by that time. In fact, expect a linebacker to be selected for the fourth consecutive year.

This leaves the question that the Steelers have subjected to their fans since entering him into the starting lineup: Can Ross Cockrell develop into the team’s newest shutdown corner?

Cockrell has posted impressive numbers for his first year as a starter. His ten defended passes are a team high, his two interceptions are tied with Blake for most at the position, and he also has a forced fumble, as well as, the aforementioned fumble recovery to his credit. He has only been penalized three times this year for pass interference once against the San Diego Chargers and twice against the Arizona Cardinals.

In those two games he helped hold Keenan Allen to a stat line of 6/57/0 and Michael Floyd to 5/50/1. In these games he performed admirably, but there have been instances where he has been absolutely abused by his opposition. A.J. Green is a prime example with his two games of 11/118/1 in week eight and 6/132/1 in week fourteen. Cockrell gave up the touchdown to Green that sealed a victory for the Bengals in week eight, which was in the Steelers’ hands until the final minutes of regulation.

These kinds of mistakes can make or break Cockrell’s position on the team in seasons to come if he is to be the type of cornerback the Steelers need him to be. In week ten against Cleveland he relinquished a 61-yard pass to Travis Benjamin that put the Browns well into enemy territory. While Cockrell has quick speed and reflexes, they were not enough to compete with Benjamin, who is well known as one of the more agile receivers in the NFL.

The coaching staff has placed Cockrell in occurrences that have not exactly been tailor-made for his experience, but this may be to afford him with as many learning situations as possible. His team leading ten passes defended stands as a testament to the fact that he has been one of the Steelers’ strongest lines of defense in their secondary.

Cockrell has displayed attributes that can be developed into a future elite cornerback in the Steelers’ secondary. His height and large frame allow for him to have favorable matchups with his opponents, and his ability to be situationally aware of his surroundings results in plays such as this one. His near 30 inch arm length, only two inches shorter than All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, and sizable hands give him the ability to break up passes and fight for chances to make plays on the ball.

Next: Steelers vs. Browns: Tomlin Tuesday

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a team notorious for turning unknown free agents into household names. With time and effort, Ross Cockrell can develop into a talented cornerback that will silence critics who claim the team must spend a first round draft pick to solve their problems at the position. He has made impressive strides so far in a short period of time and is bound to improve as his career in the Steel City continues.