CB Ross Cockrell, Steelers (RFA) – The only restricted free agent on this list, but the Steelers penny-pinching ways may have given the Bears a chance to add a starting corner before he hits the open market. Pittsburgh gave Cockrell the lowest possible tender (original round, $1.8M) which gives them a chance to match any offer but would only cost the Bears a 4th round pick if the Steelers don’t match.
Considering the Steelers have just about $10M in cap room right now and didn’t even use a 2nd round tender on Cockrell, I can’t imagine they would match anything close to a market level deal even though Cockrell started every game for them last year (including playoffs).
Pittsburgh’s lack of commitment to Cockrell is surprising as he not only started every game as an outside corner, but often shadowed the opposing team’s best wide receiver and led Pittsburgh in pass deflections with 14. It’s possible they are working on a long-term deal that would be escalated by another team bidding on Cockrell, but opening the door to other teams (like the Bears) certainly increases the risk they could lose him.
The questions for the Bears are whether Cockrell is worth enough of a cap investment to keep Pittsburgh from matching and if he’s worth losing one of their two fourth-round picks?
Cockrell is a former fourth-round pick out of Duke in 2014 and is only 25 with 23 starts already in his three-year career. He has ideal length (6’0) and speed (4.44) but lacks bulk at just 191 pounds. Cockrell earned a starting role halfway through the 2015 season based at least partly on his ability to cover Antonio Brown in practice.
Coming out of the draft, most analyst’s (myself included) considered Cockrell a slot corner, but he’s played on the outside for the Steelers since moving into the starting lineup mid-2015. In 2016 Cockrell was the team’s #1 corner, often drawing responsibility to cover the opponent’s best receiver and usually holding his own. Cockrell’s best game last year was holding Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green to just two catches for 36 yards in week two.
He only has two interceptions the last two seasons, but Cockrell showed good ball skills in college with a Duke record 12 interceptions and 41 pass breakups. So far with the Steelers, Cockrell has 25 pass breakups in 23 starts.
He has the length to jump with big receivers, enough speed to stay with just about anyone, and the ball skills to force turnovers. The biggest knock on Cockrell has to do with his thin frame. He lacks the strength to be an effective press corner and isn’t much of a factor in run support.
With Tracy Porter and his bum knee the only legitimate outside corner on the team right now, the Bears could potentially lock down two young starters in Gilmore and Cockrell this offseason.
Predicted contract: 4 years, $26M