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Chiefs UDFA linebacker Jack Cochrane has the experience and instincts to compete

The former South Dakota linebacker got a lot of snaps over his five years in college.

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NCAA Football: South Dakota at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

I just can’t stop talking about the Kansas City Chiefs’ linebackers.

I’m a huge fan of the team’s returning second-level players, but it’s been exciting to see the linebackers the team has added this offseason, too.

Before the draft, I took a look at free-agent signing Jermaine Carter Jr. Following the team’s selection, I reviewed third-round draft pick Leo Chenal. Later, I took a closer look at undrafted free agent Mike Rose.

Now I’ll be examining the other undrafted free agent with an impressive college resume: Jack Cochrane. Over the four seasons he played at South Dakota, he racked up 327 tackles and earned first-team all conference honors during his final season. He also earned multiple honors as an Academic All-American.

Here’s what to know about the young linebacker vying to earn a roster spot in Kansas City.

The basics

Cochrane played high school football in the same state he attended college, enrolling as part of the 2017 recruiting class. He started playing in 2018 — mostly as a middle linebacker — finishing second on the team in tackles. From then on, he was a constant force for the Coyotes’ defense, being named team captain in each of his last three seasons.

At South Dakota’s pro day, Cochrane measured in at 6 feet 3 and 236 pounds — a solid foundation for his position. That’s what makes the results of his athletic testing so impressive. He recorded a 41-inch vertical and a 10-foot 4-inch broad jump, which are both “elite” according to the data from Kent Lee Platte’s Relative Athletic Score metric. His 4.1-second 10-yard shuttle also fit into that category.

The 4.65-second 40-yard dash was closer to a typical speed, but the 10-yard split was 1.6 seconds — another “elite” number.

College film evaluation

I watched two full games — albeit from the broadcast angle — of Cochrane’s 2021 season: Week 1 at Kansas and a late-season game against North Dakota State.

Cochrane usually plays from a traditional middle linebacker position, making plays at the both at line of scrimmage and in space deeper down the field.

He displays effective vision (with that impressive athleticism) to make plays sideline-to-sideline, reacting quickly to play direction — and once he gets to the point of attack, staying square to the line of scrimmage.

His ability to read boxes quickly (and diagnose plays) comes from his experience — which also leads to good pre-snap anticipation.

In these two plays from the second half of the game, he has figured out some play-calling tendencies — and is using that instinct to get a head start on where he needs to be to make the stop.

Cochrane’s height can be a disadvantage for a linebacker. But I’ve seen him consciously counter that by playing low to the ground. At his size, it’s not natural to be running that way, but bending his knees and playing from more of a crouch can improve his change-of-direction speed — and how quickly he can be in a good, fundamental tackling position.

In coverage, Cochrane looks very comfortable; he glides around the field. On this play, he is very smooth running up the seam with a tight end. His size allows him to contest these types of passes, using his length to get into the throwing window without being overly physical.

This play is a good example of his skills covering the hook zone: staying patient, reading the quarterback’s eyes and letting them take him to the pass. The play nearly allowed the Coyotes to beat the Jayhawks.

The primary thing Cochrane will need to improve is his playing strength. He doesn’t have the mass to be a consistent playmaker in the box against the run — and against North Dakota State, that was obvious. That offensive line is as close to an NFL line as you’ll find in the FCS — and its superior playing strength consistently got the best of Cochrane.

His instincts allow him to fight through these kinds of mismatched blocking engagements, but he fails to make many plays by avoiding blocks completely; he tries to shed blocks after he’s engaged — rather than before. To counter his lack of power — which will be harder to overcome in the NFL — he’ll need to develop that skill even more.

The bottom line

In Kansas City’s 2022 training camp, the fringes of the linebacker depth chart will be one of the most intriguing battles. Chenal, Carter and Rose will be in the mix — but Cochrane also has the skills to insert himself into that battle. He has already made some plays.

If Cochrane is to make the roster, you can envision a role to the one Ben Niemann filled: a lighter linebacker (with play-calling experience) who can play in passing-down packages, but who will mainly be a special-teams player.

With Niemann no longer on the team, that specific role is up for grabs — and Cochrane seems to fit the mold. He is firmly a part of what will be one of the Chiefs’ most difficult position battles to sort out.

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