Ross Cockrell wasn’t in town for long before getting a good feel for Western New York. He grew up in suburban Charlotte, which many transplants say is similar to Buffalo only newer. Both are mid-sized communities with friendly people who are passionate about sports.
“It’s a bigger city with a small-town feel,” he said. “Nothing against Charlotte, but Buffalo has a history. Basketball in North Carolina is king. UNC and Duke are the kings of basketball. Here, the Bills are part of Buffalo. They’ve been here for so many years. Just look at the banners.”
Cockrell looks like an ordinary 20-something male when he’s not wearing his helmet and shoulder pads. He’s 6-foot and 190 pounds, a clean-cut and well-spoken cornerback who is trying to earn a spot with the Bills. He could pass for someone headed for corporate America rather than the NFL.
But he knew he was in the right town when someone recognized him in a Buffalo restaurant shortly after he arrived. The person was your average Bills fan who knew his name, position, school, draft selection - if not his date of birth, social security number and license plate.
“That was surprising,” Cockrell said. “It surprised me a lot. You know people are going to know Sammy Watkins, but when someone says, ‘Hey, you’re Ross Cockrell from Duke’ you’re like, ‘Wow, these people really know their Buffalo Bills.’ It wouldn’t happen anywhere else.”
It’s easy to see why the Bills were attracted to Cockrell during his pre-draft visit. Fans will be on board once they get to know him, assuming he produces on the field. He’s intelligent and articulate. He’s perceptive and mature beyond his years, humble and confident, a likeable young man.
Rest assured he’s not going to get busted for possession of synthetic marijuana and street racing. In fact, there’s a better chance Cockrell, assuming he makes a smooth transition into the league, will emerge as a leader on the defense and voice of reason in the locker room.
He was a two-time all-conference selection at Duke, which is hardly for dummies. He’s also one of only 17 players in ACC history named to the conference’s all-academic football team in all four seasons. Three came from his graduating class, so he’s been surrounded by other bright players.
Cockrell graduated with a degree in political science. His primary objective since his childhood has been playing in the NFL, but all along he was wise enough to prepare himself for going to law school. It’s a nice backup plan. He certainly wouldn’t have any problems getting through admissions.
“It was always something I wanted to do, make sure that I was doing well on the field and off the field,” he said. “It was something I focused on growing up, and going to college was a big deal for me. I was proud to go home and say, ‘Not only did I make all-conference, but academic all-conference.”
It’s no surprise when you hear Cockrell talk about his parents. His father is an executive for Bank of America in Charlotte. His mother worked for Hewlett Packard but left a good job to stay at home with Ross and his two younger sisters, both of whom are high school track stars and planning for college.
The more time you learn about Cockrell, the more you’re convinced Bills GM Doug Whaley selected a younger, faster and more talented version of himself. Whaley played defensive back at Pitt, graduated with a business degree and spent a year as a retail stockbroker before returning to football.
You hear rookies every year say how they need to adjust to bigger and faster players in the NFL. It’s true, but intelligent players generally have an easier time adjusting to the complexities of the league. The faster than process information, the sooner they get on the field.
Cockrell hasn’t been overwhelmed on the mental side, not in the least. If anything, he has embraced the technical aspects of covering receivers who are more disciplined in their pass routes. He’ll still need time to adjust, but there was a sense with him that it’s not going to be a dramatic leap.
“During training camp, it’s really going to get cranked up,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to prepare myself for, just in terms of the precision and everything in the NFL. The routes are deeper and they’re run faster. The receivers don’t round their breaks. They’re really crisp, so you have to be sharp with your steps as well.”
Duke isn’t a traditional football power, but it gave Cockrell an opportunity to play against Watkins and other top receivers. He helped limit Texas A&M wideout Mike Evans, who was Johnny Manziel’s favorite target, to four catches in the Aggies’ epic comeback in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last year.
Cockrell is no slouch, either. He’s a four-year starter and the best player to come out of Duke since Denver took center Lennie Friedman in the second round in 1999. Cockrell will get every opportunity to contribute, especially with former cornerback Aaron Williams taking over for Jairus Byrd at safety.
The Bills didn’t pick him the fourth round because they needed someone for the corporate spelling bee. They were 23rd in total defense and 29th against the pass in terms of yards gained. They’re looking for help and believe he can contribute. He’s looking to take the next step.
“Life has stages,” he said. “This is the next stage after college. You go to college and get ready for a job. I’ve wanted football to be my job, so I got ready for that while I was in college. I was fortunate enough to make it here. I’ve graduated and I’m getting ready for my next job.”