NFL Draft Report Super Sleeper: Cockrell

Underrated Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell allowed just 20.8 percent completions during his final two seasons. Cockrell's speed and play-recognition skills are among the strengths analyzed in this in-depth scouting report.

The time is now for Ross Cockrell to break Duke's drought. No Blue Devils cornerback has ever been drafted by a National Football League team. The last Duke defensive back to be selected was Ray Farmer, in the fourth round of the 1996 draft by Philadelphia, but he was quickly shifted to linebacker. The last Duke defensive back to play that position after being drafted by an NFL team was safety Ernie Jackson, taken by New Orleans in the seventh round in 1972. He played for the Saints from 1972-77, joining Atlanta in 1978 and closed out his career as a member of the Detroit Lions squad in 1979.

The university has seen just one defensive player be drafted since the turn of the century in 2000, as defensive tackle Chris Combs joined the Pittsburgh Steelers as a seventh-rounder in 2000, staying with the team until 2002 before moving on to become a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2003. Since that selection, the only other Duke players to be drafted by an NFL team were offensive tackle Drew Strojny (seventh round by the Giants in 2004), tight end Ben Patrick (seventh round by Phoenix in 2007) and quarterback Sean Renfree (seventh round by Atlanta in 2013).

Cockrell's performance on the field has generated considerable interest in the cornerback, as he is regarded as one of the elite performers in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Blessed with incredible speed, the former prep track star has converted that quickness to the gridiron, where he has done a remarkable job of shutting down his opponent's top receiver on a weekly basis. Even though he is a 191-pound athlete, his power behind his hits has seen him also perform as a safety for the Blue Devils, as it has become commonplace to see the veteran cover tight ends while leading a very young secondary.

Since become team captain prior to his junior season, Cockrell has allowed only 25-of-120 passes targeted into his area (20.83%) to be completed. During those 25 games, he has defended 33 of those tosses, breaking up 25 attempts while intercepting eight others. Additionally, he rerouted/jammed his coverage assignments away from 56 other tosses (46.67%), delivering 43 third-down stops and four more on fourth-down plays.

During that time, those receivers managed a miniscule 2.17 yards per pass attempt, finding the end zone just once. In 48 games at Duke, Cockrell has placed his name in the school record books. His 12 interceptions rank sixth in Blue Devils annals. His 41 pass deflections and 53 passes defended established Duke records and his passes defended figure ranks as the most for any active player in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision ranks.

Cockrell became a "possession killer" for opponents, as he caused 15 turnovers (12 pass thefts, one forced fumble and one recovery of a blocked punt). He was also quite effective at forcing his opponents' punting units on to the field, delivering a total of 99 third-down stops (83 vs. the pass and 16 vs. the ground game) and seven more on fourth-down snaps (six vs. the aerial attack).

The senior team captain recorded 59 of his 227 tackles inside the red zone, with 12 coming on goal-line snaps. He registered seven stops-for-loss and took down ball-carriers and receivers at the line of scrimmage for no gain on 13 other plays.

The 2013 All-Atlantic Coast Conference choice continued to excel throughout his final season. One of five players on the team presently enrolled in graduate school, he started all 12 games that he played in, missing the North Carolina State clash with an ankle sprain, marking only the second time he has missed a game during his Duke career. His 12 pass deflections tied for eighth on the school season-record list and his 15 passes defended placed 22nd nationally and are seventh-best on the school record chart. He delivered 40 tackles with a sack and gained 19 yards via a trio of interceptions.

Ross Cockrell

Duke University Blue Devils

6:00.0-191

Body Structure

Cockrell might look a little bit on the "light side," as far as his 191-pound weight measurement, but he has a muscular physique with a defined upper body that displays good trapezoid and pectoral development. He has a tight waist and hips, with a small bubble. He possesses strong thighs and knotted calves, using them effectively to maintain position when engaging a bigger lead blocker in run force. He also displays a strong grip, despite shorter-than-ideal arms (29 7/8-inches), and has been quite effective picking off or batting down passes.

Athletic Ability

One thing you immediately notice about Cockrell is his exceptional body control. He has a smooth, effortless backpedal, showing great explosion turning and closing on the ball. He has very good foot agility and can change direction on a dime. His ability to hit with force, even vs. the much bigger tight ends, adds to his pro resume, for much like Green Bay's Casey Hayward and Jacksonville's Dwayne Gratz, he packs a "wallop" behind his hits, so much so, he gives a team confidence to keep him on the field vs. running plays. He could be utilized immediately at the pro level, whether as a boundary cornerback, in the slot, or as a safety in sub-packages. He is flexible and has that acceleration and burst needed to close on the ball in an instant. He has also shown excellent ability to jump and time those leaps to consistently win jump ball battles vs. taller receivers. With his timing going up for the ball, he has become an elite ball thief.

Football Sense

Any player from Duke has to be classroom smart and Cockrell is "all that," having earned conference academic honors three times at the school. On the football field, he is like having a "coach in pads," as he knows everyone's assignments and how to make sure his team is well-positioned to make the play. He is always studying film, when he is not mentoring the younger players, and is the type that his coaches know will always "think well on his feet." He has such a keen knowledge for game action, the staff has been able to use him at various positions. Do not be fooled by his 191-pound frame, as he can really "bring the lumber" when playing inside the box, having the vision to sidestep trash and make plays along the line (10 of his 227 tackles stopped opponents for no gain and seven others were behind the line of scrimmage). With his field and school "IQ" I am very confident he is ready to handle the mental aspect of the game at the next level.

Competitiveness

Cockrell is a highly motivated and very competitive athlete. He does not like to lose, but has embraced his role of mentoring the younger players as they go through their "growing pains." He plays with great effort and desire. Even though he is more of a leader by example, he will not hesitate to "get after" teammates for foolish performances (see 2013 Pittsburgh game). He makes a lot of tackles in the first- and second-level areas, uncommon for a cornerback, as most at his position shy away from contact vs. offensive linemen — not Cockrell (see 2013 Memphis and Pittsburgh; 2012 Memphis, Virginia Tech and North Carolina games). He is an explosive hitter, mentally tough and with his "search-and-destroy" attitude, he is very comfortable playing inside (at safety or in the second level) when the coaches need a defensive back to provide run force. He is not a "smack talker," but has more than enough skills to back it up. He is the type that loves and willingly accepts any challenges (see 2012 Stanford game and his combative nature vs. the Cardinal tight ends). He is usually the player that lines up vs. the opponent's best receiver and he seems to rise to the occasion every time a big play is needed (see 2013 Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest games).

Key and Diagnostic Skills

Cockrell has excellent field vision, impeccable timing and very quick reactions to the ball in flight. He is quick to recover and defend his responsibility and is not the type that will "eyeball" the quarterback, as he is not easily fooled by play action or misdirection. He has great instincts and good feel to make plays on the ball, whether taking out the outside leg to impede a ball-carrier's forward progress or the ability to get the receiver misdirected and take his man off the route's progression (has rerouted or jammed receivers away from the pass (among 231 passes targeted into his area, he rerouted or jammed his coverage assignment on 96 of those attempts -- 41.56% -- while also recording 12 touchdown-saving tackles in pass coverage). Only elite cornerbacks possess the ability to immediately recognize the run or pass like Cockrell, as some scouts liken that ability to a "football sixth sense." He is very alert to action on the field and with his ability to see things happen in front of him, he has developed into quite an effective tackler.


Mark Dolejs/USA TODAY

Man Coverage Ability

There is no question that Cockrell can run with the fastest of receivers that an opponent can put on the field, possessing 4.42 speed from 2013 April drills (was slowed by his ankle injury when he was timed at 4.56 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine) and he has above-average quickness and speed, along with the burst and acceleration to close on the ball in a hurry. He excels at staying tight with his coverage assignments, thanks to very flexible hips, evident by the way he can suddenly turn and run towards the ball. Even when a receiver somehow manages to get behind him, he has the foot speed to immediately catch up. One thing that is very impressive is his hand usage — whether in attempts to jostle the receiver or jam his opponent, or to just maintain relationship throughout the route. With his ball hawking skills, teams know he is the type that can play the trail, cover or cushion (see 2013 Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest games). He has very good movement skills and is disciplined, as he never takes false steps coming out of his breaks. He sticks to receivers like "Krazy Glue" and thanks to his leaping ability and timing, he compensates for a lack of ideal height and arm length when taking on the bigger receivers in jump-ball situations.

Zone Coverage Ability

Cockrell has become so effective recognizing the plays develop, the coaches used him more often in "centerfield" as a safety the last two seasons. He is very instinctive and is comfortable playing the press or in off-coverage. He has the vision and anticipation skills to react to the run, or instantly break on the thrown ball. He makes very good adjustments handling the zone switch-offs and is one of the best at reading the quarterback. He keeps plays in front of him and excels at sinking under deeper routes (see 2013 Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Texas A&M games).

Backpedal Skills

Cockrell has that quick, rapid-fire moves with his feet, demonstrating outstanding balance and body control, along with sudden hip turn and acceleration in transition. He shows proper knee bend and turns smoothly and easily, thanks to above average body control. He is very natural in transition, generating that second gear to close on the ball coming out of his backpedal. He has those natural movement skills while turning, along with the ability to get his head turned around while flipping his hips. It is very rare to see him get high in his stance in transition.

Ball Reaction Skills

Cockrell reacts to the thrown ball in an instant, as he has Darrell Green-like anticipation ability (always in position to make the play), along with good urgency making plays at the opposite end of the field (came out of his area to record a FBS-best 19 touchdown-saving tackles in 2012). He maintains a good relationship with the receiver throughout the route's progression and with his timing and leaping skills, he generally wins most jump-ball battles (12 interceptions and 41 pass deflections in 48 games). He can transition "on a dime" and has the burst to close on plays in front of him. He also demonstrates highly effective plant-and-drive skills, along with a sudden short burst to get to the catch's mesh point. He is fluid in transition and when not picking off the ball, he has the hand strength and quickness to knock the ball down.

Range/Recovery

Cockrell has enough speed to stay on the hip of any receiver. He can turn and run with a highly efficient second gear and when zeroing in on ball-carriers, he has that straight-line suddenness to close in an instant. With his transition skills, field and ball awareness, he has a lot of the same qualities that have helped New Orleans' Champ Bailey maintain his excellence throughout a long pro career. Even on the rare occasions a receiver gets behind him, he is quick to recover and close on his man. He has confidence in his ability to recover from his mistakes, thanks to his speed and he appears to be just as fast when wearing pads. I am very impressed with his overall body flexibility, as he can really run with fine range and catch-up skills (see 2013 Pittsburgh, Memphis and Florida State games).

Jumping Ability

The former prep track standout has very good leaping ability (36 1/2-inch vertical jump and 10'02" broad jump), along with natural ability and timing to get to the ball at its high point. He generates very good explosion coming off the ground and above-average strength in his legs to make quite a high amount of plays for a "little guy" by combating 6-foot-3-plus receivers for jump balls. He has that exceptional body control needed to run, jump and adjust to the ball in flight, as he always seems to time those leaps to be "an inch" above any receiver going for those high throws. He has the keen field vision to track the ball and quite a bit of spring in his legs when elevating, along with plenty of courage to do so with bigger receivers trying to jostle him in battles for the pigskin. You can see on film that he is one of those rare players with the ability to plant, drive and redirect his movements with no wasted motion.

Hands

Cockrell's experience as a receiver in high school have benefitted him greatly as a pass thief. He has good hand measurement and will not hesitate to use his body and hands to secure the ball. He also shows the ability to give ground and use his hands to keep cut blockers away from his feet. In press coverage, he keeps his hands very active and knows how to grab a jersey in a way that the refs won't spot it. He can snatch and pluck at the ball naturally and has etched his name on to the school's record lists for interceptions, pass break-ups and passes defended.

Run Defense

Do not be fooled by Cockrell's 191-pound frame — he can "bring the lumber" when it comes to making plays in run force (see 2013 Memphis and Pittsburgh; 2012 Stanford, Wake Forest and Cincinnati games). He shows very good toughness taking on offensive linemen and lead blockers and hits with good explosion. He might be smaller than ideal, but he makes lots of tackles at the line (12) and behind the line (seven) of scrimmage for a cornerback. He is an above-average open field tackle and plays with leverage. He is simply not afraid to come up and hit somebody and is not the type that will ever take a side. He is fearless in run support, with more than a handful of those tackles that stand out on game film. There are few, if any, cornerbacks in college with his ability to stack and read.

Tackling Ability

Cockrell might "lack sand in his pants," but he is not the type that will shy away from contact or lunge at a ball-carrier. He shows above-average wrap-up ability, along with the strength to impede the forward progress of an opponent after delivering the initial hit (148 of his 227 tackles have been solo efforts and he made the initial hit on 67 of his 79 assisted stops). He is a player that we know will "thud up" with no regards for his own safety, but he has been quite durable, having missed only two games due to injury issues. He is very deft at avoiding blockers on the few chances that the coaches let him attack the backfield and he has the vision and feel to immediately find the ball-carrier when he is working behind the line. He strikes opponents without fear and he might owe former Wake Forest receiver Chris Givens (now with the Rams) some thanks, after the then-senior Demon Deacon chided Cockrell for being "timid" facing Wake during Cockrell's freshman season. (Givens gave him a lesson, catching five passes for 145 yards and a score vs. the Blue Devil that year.) You can see on film that since then, he has become an explosive hitter, one who will square up and put his "hat under the chin" of any opponent.

Compares To

CASEY HAYWARD-Green Bay: Much like Hayward, Cockrell is not only a highly efficient man coverage defender, but has the strength, field vision and savvy to shift inside to safety or slot cornerback, when needed. Like the Packers' standout, he not only has above-average speed and great hands for the interception, but also generates a forceful thud as a wrap-up tackler to be a big contributor vs. the ground game.


Dave-Te' Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft.


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