Thousands of high school players in the Charlotte area every year think some version of this thought: Wouldn’t it be awesome to one day play for the Carolina Panthers?
The odds against this happening are fairly astronomical. But new Panthers cornerback Ross Cockrell appears to have beaten them, as the 26-year-old Charlotte Latin graduate is slated to suit up for the Panthers in 2018.
“It’s very cool,” Cockrell said of playing for his hometown NFL squad. “Familiar team, familiar city, great organization. And Super Bowl aspirations, too — that’s always a plus.”
Cockrell might be the answer to this question: Who is going to be the second starting outside cornerback alongside James Bradberry? After trading Daryl Worley to Philadelphia in the deal for wide receiver Torrey Smith, the Panthers were in need of more depth at the position. They signed Cockrell — who has started 32 games in his four NFL seasons — to compete with Kevon Seymour and others for the job.
“Ross is a very smart, instinctive player who really played well last year after he went over to the New York Giants,” Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. “He’s going to bring a veteran leadership to the (defensive backs) room that will be extremely helpful.”
Cockrell’s roots are threaded through North Carolina. He starred at Charlotte Latin as both a wide receiver and defensive back. For one prep season, he and older teammate Brenton Bersin started at the two wide receiver spots — two future NFL players on the same team, which not surprisingly won a state championship.
Cockrell then went to Duke, where he helped revive the Blue Devils’ football team. “That was a very good experience,” Cockrell said. “My first team went 3-9, and my last team went 10-4. So we developed a football program there.”
Cockrell was a fourth-round draft pick for Buffalo in 2014. He played for the Bills for a year, Pittsburgh for two seasons and then the New York Giants for one – so the Panthers will be his fourth team in five seasons. He is known as a cornerback with decent speed (in the high 4.5 range in the 40-yard dash) who is better in zone coverage than in man-to-man, but the Panthers have generally played a lot of zone coverage with their corners.
The Steelers traded Cockrell to the Giants just before the beginning of last season after acquiring cornerback Joe Haden. Cockrell transitioned quickly, playing in all 16 games in 2017 for New York, with nine starts. He also had a career-high three interceptions.
“I do the homework so I try to recognize formations and things like that,” Cockrell said. "That's so I can play ball based on what may or may not happen. I like to get on the line of scrimmage, put my hands on guys, and just attack the football while it’s in the air.”
Mike Tomlin, the Steelers coach who had Cockrell for two years before Pittsburgh traded him, told the Observer about Cockrell in March: “They (the Panthers) can expect a professional, a guy that punches the clock everyday. A team guy. I’ve got a lot of respect for that guy. Happy for him that he’s back in his area, I know it means a lot to him to be at home.”
When Cockrell has an off day, he also may head up to Davidson. His younger sister, Ciera Cockrell, is a standout on Davidson’s volleyball team and led the squad in kills as a junior in 2017.
"It’s going to be a lot of fun to be home,” Ross Cockrell said. “But it’s also going to be a lot of work, and I’m going to enjoy that. I can’t wait to be lined up with a guy, one-on-one, and just battling.”