The New York Giants’ defensive unit was widely regarded as one of the best in the league entering last season. By season’s end, after various injuries and controversies, the defense’s biggest playmaker was a player who the Giants traded for just one week before the season began.
Ross Cockrell, a six-foot defensive back out of Duke University, has played for three different franchises since being drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. Cockrell was a standout talent in college, being named First-team All-ACC during his junior and senior seasons, but he only recorded two interceptions over his first three seasons in the NFL.
The Giants traded a conditional draft pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers to acquire Cockrell, who the Giants saw as a serviceable backup to the likes of Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Eli Apple. Instead, Jenkins’ season ended early due to injury, and conduct issues involving both Rodgers-Cromartie and Apple gave Cockrell significantly more playing time than anticipated.
Surprisingly, Cockrell made the most of that opportunity, defending nine passes and collecting three interceptions over the final four games of the season. His coverage skills were excellent, and his reliable tackling allowed him to limit the damage when he did give up receptions.
At 31 years old, Rodgers-Cromartie was probably not in the Giants’ future plans at cornerback to begin with. For Apple, who is only 22 and was a first-round pick just two years ago, the situation prior to the emergence of Cockrell was much more dire.
Apple has been reported as having disputes with several of his teammates, including All-Pro safety Landon Collins, who spoke to the media on several occasions about Apple’s poor conduct off the field. There is no denying that Apple is an incredibly talented player, but it appears that there is no conceivable way he could repair the broken relationships that he has with several other players on this Giants’ team.
Given the various positions of need that the Giants have, the team probably has no plans to draft or trade for a cornerback to replace Apple. As such, the Giants will likely have to rely on in-house options, a move that has been made much easier by the emergence of Cockrell.
Cockrell is not as technically skilled as Apple, but his versatility and his desire to succeed make him a much better fit with the Giants. Cockrell played several positions in the Giants’ secondary and on special teams, and with most of his success coming as the team’s top corner, it wouldn’t be surprising if he is able to continue that success when guarding the opposing team’s second and third receiving options.
The Giants’ defense played far worse than the talent on the roster suggested, and in order for the team to rebound from that poor play, the players on the team need to be motivated to put in whatever work necessary to succeed. Ross Cockrell has that drive which Eli Apple sorely lacks, and Cockrell’s outstanding performance down the stretch last season is hopefully just a sign of more to come from an exciting player with untapped potential.
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