There haven’t been a lot of pleasant surprises on the 2017 New York Giants. Just about anything that was unexpected about this season went in the wrong direction. The Giants have underperformed expectations in just about every area. Possibly the biggest disappointment was the defense. Last season, it was a unit that dragged the offense to the playoffs. The defense ranked second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA -- fourth against the pass and second against the run.
This year, though, the defense is 28th in DVOA -- 25th against the pass and 24th against the run. But in that disappointment, the Giants found a diamond in the rough in the form of a September trade for depth with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Just before Week 1, the Giants traded a conditional seventh-round pick to the Steelers for cornerback Ross Cockrell. At the time, he was viewed as a versatile piece who could fill in as the fourth corner behind Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Eli Apple. Between injuries, play, and off-field issues, Cockrell’s role has grown from fourth corner to the Giants’ No. 1 corner this past week against the Arizona Cardinals.
Cockrell has played 100 percent of the defensive snaps in each of the past five games. For many corners a rapid growth in responsibility could turn out terribly -- something the Giants have seen with players like Donte Deayon and Brandon Dixon. But Cockrell has flourished in the expanded role and he’s been one of the league’s best corners along the way.
Per Sports Info Solutions charting data from Football Outsiders, Cockrell has allowed the fewest yards per pass (4.7) among 89 cornerbacks who have been targeted at least 40 times. He also leads the group of cornerbacks in Success Rate (76 percent). This type of production is a bit surprising, but Cockrell was a good cornerback while he started for 16 games with Pittsburgh in 2016. Among 84 corners who saw 50 or more targets last season, Cockrell ranked 20th in yards allowed per pass (6.5) and 38th in Success Rate (54 percent).
Back in September, Jeff Hartman of Behind the Steel Curtain tipped us off that Cockrell could exceed some expectations. Here’s a piece of what he told Ed after the trade:
Cockrell is an above average cornerback, but lacks elite speed to truly run with fast receivers. This makes him vulnerable in man coverage schemes. However, he is a very smart cornerback who is best used in zone schemes where he can read and react, focusing solely on his responsibilities in the zone scheme.
One part of that has changed the other this season. Cockrell’s ability to read and react has helped him improve in man coverage this season and he’s been an asset there when the Giants have needed him to be.
In the play below, Cockrell (top of screen) lined up against Noah Brown of the Dallas Cowboys on a third-and-5 at the Dallas 42 in the Week 14 matchup. Dallas lined up in a 3x1 set and wanted to use Brown and slot receiver Cole Beasley to open up a lane in the middle of the field. Brown ran a crossing route to the middle of the field and Beasley hesitated a bit off the line before going to the outside. The intention was a pick route to knock off Cockrell in coverage, but the corner read it off the line and perfectly thread the hole between Beasley and Darryl Morris to avoid the pick. He followed Brown across the field, broke up the pass, and forced a punt on fourth down.
Against the Eagles in Week 15, Cockrell stayed on the outside and mostly covered Alshon Jeffery with some snaps against Torrey Smith sprinkled in. On this first-and-10 from midfield, Cockrell was against Jeffery (bottom of the screen) and backed off the line without worry he’d get beaten deep. Jeffery is more known for his size than this ability to get behind defensive backs. Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, he has the lowest average separation for receivers on targets at just 1.7 yards. On the play, Jeffery ran a deep curl and when he cut to turn around, Cockrell broke on the ball and forced another pass deflection.
His ability to read the play has also allowed him to make plays against the run -- he has 13 tackles and seven assists on the ground -- and against short passes to running backs. Against the Raiders in Week 13, Oakland had a first-and-10 near midfield. Running back Jalen Richard went in motion from the left slot through the backfield and released for a swing pass. Cockrell was lined up against Cordarrelle Patterson on the side towards the motion and once he noticed the swing pass, he broke from the receiver and made the play after a minimal gain.
Against the Cardinals on Sunday, the Giants used heavy zone coverage and kept the cornerbacks on sides. That allowed Arizona to keep Larry Fitzgerald for the most part by keeping him on the other side of the field and in the slot. Fitzgerald was targeted 15 times and only one came with Cockrell in coverage. That play ended with an interception in the end zone.
Fitzgerald lined up close to formation on the 25, but was the most outside receiver on the right side. He ran a deep corner route, but Cockrell had it played all the way. He kept his hips to the inside which accounted for a possible inside break for Fitzgerald. As the ball arrived, Cockrell was quickly able to turn his hips, make a play on the ball in front of the receiver, and come down with an interception.
Cockrell had his first two interceptions of the season on Sunday. Despite the lack of numbers there, he has been able to make plays on the ball in his career. He has seven defended passes this season and had 14 last season for the Steelers. Given more time and some better play around him, those numbers could continue to increase. With how good he’s been in coverage, the lack of interceptions isn’t all that much of a detriment to his game.
As the Giants are set to evaluate which parts of this team should stick around under a new regime next season, Cockrell has played his way into that conversation. While many other pieces of this defense have underwhelmed, he’s stepped up and impressed with every opportunity. He’ll be a free agent in the offseason after counting for just $1.1 million against the Giants’ salary cap in 2017, per Over The Cap. He shouldn’t be expensive to re-sign and he’ll only turn 27 years old in August. This is the type of inexpensive piece that allows for more flexibility for other parts of the roster.
Cockrell wasn’t in the initial 2017 plans before the September trade, but his play since that time should make him part of the 2018 plans and beyond.