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Labriola on Cockrell, skipping bowl games

Posted May 12, 2017

Ross Cockrell has replaced William Gay as the CB Steelers fans love to blame.

Ready or not, here it comes:

* Ross Cockrell has been a Steelers cornerback for less than two calendar years. After being waived on Aug. 31, 2015 by the Buffalo Bills, who had made him a fourth-round draft pick in 2014, Cockrell signed with the Steelers less than a week later, on Sept. 5, 2015.

* He joined a cornerback-needy Steelers defense and became a starter in early October. In his seven regular season starts, Cockrell had two interceptions, 11 passes defensed. He forced and recovered a fumble. Then in the 2015 AFC Wild Card Game in Cincinnati, it was Cockrell who came up with the Jeremy Hill fumble forced by Ryan Shazier late in the fourth quarter that set the stage for an improbable Steelers victory.

* In 2016, Cockrell was a full-time starter at right cornerback, and while he didn’t have any interceptions, he did lead the Steelers with 14 passes defensed.

* To summarize, Ross Cockrell has started 23 regular season games over two seasons for the Steelers, and he has two interceptions and 25 passes defensed. Very respectable contributions from a fourth-round draft choice in his third NFL season, and the adjective describing Cockrell’s performance to date deserves to be upgraded to outstanding being that he was signed off the street on the eve of a regular season.

* But somewhere along the way, Ross Cockrell became William Gay. Not in the sense that he was better suited to playing slot cornerback, but in the sense that he became the cornerback Steelers fans most love to blame.

* When free agency didn’t yield a starting-caliber cornerback for the Steelers, many of the Cockrell-blamers turned their attention to the draft as the vehicle that would lead to his ouster from the lineup, and with rookie minicamp weekend having arrived that faction has turned its attention and pinned its hopes on Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen.

* Sutton, the Steelers’ first pick in the third round, will be tried at both inside cornerback and outside cornerback, according to defensive backs coach Carnell Lake, but expecting him to do enough and show enough soon enough to challenge for a starting job in 2017 is unrealistic. And unrealistic doesn’t even begin to describe the chances of fifth-round pick Brian Allen winning a starting job as a rookie, being that he arrived in college as a wide receiver.

* As is stands today, the most likely outcome for the Steelers is that Artie Burns and Cockrell will be their starting cornerbacks in 2017, and fans should understand that’s far from a doomsday scenario. According to a recent statistic conjured up by Pro Football Focus – and I admit to being skeptical of a lot that comes from this particular source – Cockrell ranks third among all third-year cornerbacks in yards-allowed-per-coverage-snap.

* According to Pro Football Focus, Detroit’s Nevin Lawson is No. 1 with .92 yards-allowed-per-coverage-snap, with Jacksonville’s Aaron Colvin next at 1.03, and then it’s Cockrell at 1.05. Granted, limiting the statistic to third-year cornerbacks excludes a lot of the NFL’s top players at the position, but there are a few recognizable names, and they all rank below Cockrell. There’s Denver’s Bradley Roby at 1.11 yards-allowed-per-coverage-snap, San Diego’s Jason Verrett is at 1.37, and New England’s Malcolm Butler is at 1.36.

* It’s likely the Steelers want to get better at right cornerback, but until that becomes a real possibility, they could do a whole lot worse than Ross Cockrell.

* Leonard Fournette was the fourth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Less than one hour later, the Carolina Panthers made Christian McCaffery the eighth overall pick.

* Michigan tight end Jake Butts had to wait two more days to get drafted, and it finally happened in the fifth round when the Denver Broncos made him the 145th overall pick.

* Now let’s jet from the Philadelphia site of the 2017 draft over to Texas, where Dallas Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett announced that first-year pro Jaylon Smith won’t take part in any on-field work during the team’s rookie minicamp.

* Those four items might appear to be unrelated, but in fact they are very much related, and related in a way that could end up having the most significant impact on the annual NFL Draft since the decision to allow underclassmen to declare themselves eligible.

* Fournette and McCaffrey have become infamous in some corners of the college football universe for skipping their teams’ meaningless bowl games at the end of the 2016 season and instead opting to preserve their bodies for the NFL. Neither LSU nor Stanford was good enough to squeeze into the four-team playoff for the National Championship. And on top of that, Stanford wasn’t good enough to represent the Pac-12 in the Rose Bowl, and LSU’s 8-4 record was good enough only for third place in the SEC West and thus sent them to the Citrus Bowl.

* Jaylon Smith tore up a knee and sustained nerve damage playing for Notre Dame in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, which capped the Fighting Irish’s 2015 season, and his injuries were such that he’s still not medically capable of participating in on-field football activities. Up until a short time ago, the nerve damage in Smith’s leg was still so bad that he was unable to walk normally.

* A likely top-five pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Smith was picked by the Dallas Cowboys with the third pick in the second round, 34th overall, and that difference has cost him millions of dollars in a signing bonus and a full year of professional football already.

* Jake Butts was projected to be a second-day pick in this most recent draft, but because of a knee injury in the Orange Bowl he had to wait until Saturday’s fifth round for the Broncos to make him the eighth tight end chosen and the 145th overall selection.

* The belief/fear among the boola-boola college crowd is that more players will follow in the footsteps of Fournette and McCaffrey and try to avoid the pitfalls endured by Smith and Butts, because unless your team is in the playoff for the national championship those bowl games are nothing but venues for alumni to act like drunken fools and for everybody except the players to cash a nice check.

* Be careful, the boola-boola college guys warn the players, because the NFL will look unfavorably on those who desert their teams in the quest to protect a down-the-road payday. That’s a mercenary approach, but plenty of Super Bowls – and before that NFL Championship Games – have been won by teams of players who were chasing the financial rewards, and the jewelry, that come with such an accomplishment. And the bowl games that Fournette and McCaffrey skipped have been turned into exhibition games by the college football playoff.

* The boola-boola argument took a big hit, however, when the decisions by Fournette and McCaffrey had absolutely no negative impact on their draft position. And if more players make similar decisions, and the sum total of those decisions result in the expansion of the playoff combined with the pruning of a bunch of those bowl games, starting with the ones played in baseball stadiums, well, all I have to say about that is: yay.

* What’s worse than a player or players skipping an exhibition game at the end of a college season, in my mind, are those guys who get beat out for a starting job and/or significant playing time at one school and then transfer to another to get the on-field exposure they had lost to somebody else.

* In the NFL, running away from and/or ducking competition is a far greater sin. Just saying.