Losing your job is never easy, whether you’re a janitor or a professional football player. And every August, within a span of about a week or so, roughly 40 percent of the entire NFL player workforce loses their jobs when each one of the league’s teams trims their rosters down from 90 players to 53—although 10 do ultimately get re-signed to practice squads.
Cornerback Ross Cockrell was one of those players last year as a former fourth-round draft pick heading into his second training camp with the Bills. Having played very sparsely during his rookie season, even late in the year while the team battled injuries, Cockrell was hoping to improve his stock, but he missed most of training camp and the preseason for the Bills sidelined with an injury of his own.
This likely as much as anything prompted his being released in the first wave of roster cuts, following which he went unclaimed by all 31 other teams. There were reports, ultimately unsubstantiated, that Buffalo intended to re-sign him to the practice squad.
But Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers elected to take the chance on him by signing him to a one-year contract on the day of the final roster cuts in order to complete their 53-man roster after having found the back end of their own cornerback depth chart lacking.
We have largely heard this story before—I have written it a couple of times myself—but we haven’t really heard it from Cockrell’s perspective until recently. The third-year cornerback, who is running with the first-team defense during OTAs, talked about that experience recently at practice.
As quoted by Jeremy Fowler for ESPN, Cockrell conceded that the Steelers “took a leap of faith” in picking up an inexperienced cornerback off the scrap heap. “When you get released”, he said, “you kind of go numb and can’t believe it’s happening. I took a night, kind of wallowed in it a bit. After that, I got excited, came out and just competed as hard as possible”.
Fowler writes that Cockrell was “devastated” by the release, and as he said, it took him some time in order to get over the shock and the disappointment, which no doubt was only exacerbated by the fact that no team chose to claim him off waivers.
The Steelers had previously claimed two second-year cornerbacks off waivers in consecutive seasons prior to last year, with Antwon Blake being claimed in 2013 and gradually developing into a bigger role, and B.W. Webb claimed in 2014. He was among the bottom-half of the roster who was released in favor of signing Cockrell as one of what was initially six cornerbacks on the 53-man roster.
The Steelers chose not to claim Cockrell last year, which meant that they were not on the hook for his rookie contract, and instead signed him to a simple one-year veteran-minimum deal, re-signing him this offseason as an exclusive rights free agent. He will be a restricted free agent next year, and will likely not have to deal with another offseason like last year’s.