NFL Draft: Cockrell, 3 from UNC picked; Four sign FA deals

May. 11, 2014 @ 12:35 PM

Duke lost the Chick-fil-A Bowl in a 52-48 shootout last Dec. 31 but all was not lost for the Blue Devils.

The work Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell turned in against Aggies wide receiver Mike Evans resonated in Saturday’s final day of the NFL Draft.

The Buffalo Bills were impressed with the work Cockrell did that day in particular and over his career as a whole, so they picked Cockrell in the NFL Draft’s fourth round.

“I think the word that comes out with Ross is he is always consistent,” Bills player personnel director Jim Monos said. “No matter if it’s Mike Evans, which everybody brings that up because that was the best player he went against, him and Sammy (Watkins). He’s played against all these guys and he is always consistent.”

Evans, selected No. 7 overall in the first round of the draft Thursday night by Tampa Bay, caught four passes for 72 yards in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Cockrell faced off against Watkins during the 2012 season when Watkins played for Clemson.

Now they’ll be teammates since Buffalo picked Watkins with the draft’s fourth overall pick on Thursday night.

Cockrell thought his final game with Duke, against Texas A&M, sent a message even though his team lost.

“Personally, it was great,” Cockrell said Saturday during a conference call with reporters. “I wish it would have been better for the program, as well. It would have been a great win for us. But I think it opened up a lot of eyes that, you know, this guy from Duke can actually play a little ball and compete at the next level.”

Cockrell’s selection is another example of how much improvement Duke football has experienced.

Cockrell is the first Duke player since defensive end Chris Combs in 2000 to be drafted before the seventh round. Combs was a sixth-round pick by Pittsburgh that year. No Duke player has been selected higher than Cockrell since center Lennie Friedman went in the second round in 1999 to Denver.

With quarterback Sean Renfree going to Atlanta in the seventh round last year, this marks the first time since 1999-2000 that Duke has had players selected in consecutive NFL drafts.

“What a terrific day for Ross — we could not be happier for him and his entire family,” said Duke head coach David Cutcliffe. “The Bills are getting a young man of great integrity who will undoubtedly be an asset within their organization. On the field, he’s competed at the highest level with a great deal of success. And without question, Ross is one of the finest — if not the finest — peer leaders I’ve ever been around.”

Cockrell will join quarterback Thad Lewis, his former Duke teammate, with the Bills.

Buffalo was one of two teams, along with Pittsburgh, that brought Cockrell to their facilities for a pre-draft visit.

Monos said something he saw at Duke’s pro day in March impressed him, too.

“You could see it even at his pro day,” Monos said. “Guys gravitate to him and he is the leader of that group. Thad Lewis also said that Ross picked him off when Thad was a senior there and Ross might have been a freshman. Thad said, ‘If you can pick me off you have to be pretty good.’

Cockrell’s selection was the first of a busy day at the NFL Draft for Duke and North Carolina.

After Cockrell went to Buffalo with the 109th pick, Cincinnati selected UNC offensive lineman Russell Bodine with the 111th pick.

Tar Heels strong safety Tre Boston went to the Carolina Panthers later in the fourth round at the 128th overall slot.

In the seventh round, Minnesota selected UNC cornerback Jabari Price with the 225th overall pick.

Following the final round, quarterback Bryn Renner and offensive tackle James Hurst, both of UNC, signed free agent deals with the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens, respectively.  Duke defensive lineman Kenny Anunike and running back Juwan Thompson will join Renner in Denver after agreeing to terms with the Broncos.

Renner finished his Carolina career as one of the most prolific quarterbacks in program history. He owns the top two single-season touchdown pass totals in school history with 28 in 2012 and 26 in 2011. He also owns the school record for career 300-yard passing games with 10. Renner ranks second in career touchdown passes (64) behind Darian Durant's 68, and he is third in school history in career yards (8,221), career completions (668) and career attempts (1,005).

Renner's senior season ended early after injurying his shoulder in a win over NC State.

A native of Plainfield, Indiana, Hurst was named first-team All-ACC in 2013 after grading out at 90 percent on the season. Hurst started a school-record 49 games in his career since earning a starting job in the second week of his true freshman season. In the final game of his career, he suffered a non-displaced fracture in his left fibula in the win over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.

Anunike, a 6-5, 270-pound native of Galena, Ohio, was a two-time All-ACC selection in 2012 and 2013 and is one of just two players in Duke history to lead the Blue Devils in sacks three consecutive seasons. 

Thompson, a 5-11, 225-pound native of Fairburn, Ga., played in 49 career games and was a three-time Academic All-ACC selection.