Scouts saw Dennard, a seventh-round pick in the Pats' 2012 draft, as a mid-to-high round talent, but one whose value was predicated on shoring up his erratic off-the-field (mis)behavior. The Pats, no strangers to taking flyers on troubled players (see: Hernandez, Aaron), took the plunge in the draft's final round.
The pick already seems to be paying dividends: Dennard has begun to establish himself as a solid corner in man coverage.
Dennard's NFL career got off to an inauspicious start—he missed the first four games of his career with a hamstring injury. With a quarter of his rookie season behind him and nothing to show for it, Dennard appeared buried on the depth chart behind replacement-level corners like Sterling Moore.
It looked like it would be a redshirt rookie season for Dennard—a learning campaign for a raw prospect with upside.
Then came the Pats' Week 5 matchup with the Denver Broncos.
Dennard, with his hamstring fully recovered, must have impressed in his first week back at practice. He replaced Sterling Moore in the nickel package late in the first half.
Denver QB Peyton Manning tested Dennard on his first series, and the rookie passed with flying colors. Dennard came up with a key bat-down of a pass over the middle to Brandon Stokley on third down, when the score was just 14-7 in favor of New England. The Patriots proceeded to blow the game open after Dennard's big defensive play against a future Hall of Fame QB.
Manning continued to go after Dennard, and the Pats' rookie continued to show his mettle. In 31 snaps, Dennard allowed zero completions in five attempts, with two passes defended.
Dennard exhibited a competitive fire in that game, contesting throws and making plays on the ball. He was the lone bright spot in a secondary that yielded 337 yards and three touchdowns to Manning.
He has continued his strong play in the past three weeks.
According to Dave's Breakdown (a great source for charting the Pats' secondary), Dennard has yielded just 11 receptions in 24 targets, good for a 45.8% completion percentage. While it's only a four-game sample size, that completion percentage is by far the best among members of the Pats' secondary (Devin McCourty is second-best, yielding a 50.1% completion rate).
The sample size is small, but not insignificant. Dennard has played 223 snaps this year, 41.1 percent of all Patriot snaps (per Mike Reiss of ESPN.com).
In that time, he has yielded just a 37.3 QB rating against, the fourth-lowest in the NFL entering Week 9, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription-only service).
Of course, the Pats' secondary is on the upswing, with New England's recent acquisition of Buccaneer CB Aqib Talib. Dennard and Talib will likely be the starting CB pairing for the Pats, with McCourty playing safety.
The question then becomes, will Dennard be able to succeed when opposing QBs no longer have Kyle Arrington and Sterling Moore to pick on in the base defense?
It's quite possible that Dennard will actually play better. As the former Husker said following his debut against Manning:
If they keep coming at me, I get in my comfort zone. I mean, just go out there and make plays. Like Coach Bill said, 'Just go out there and compete.' That's what I like to do.
Dennard has the requisite press-man coverage skills to shut down WRs. He mirrors receivers well, flipping his hips smoothly and turning on the burners cleanly to stay in step with receivers.
No one is comparing Dennard to Darrelle Revis (who will go down as possibly the greatest CB ever), but the two share one quality in pass coverage. Both players are adept at funneling the wide receiver down the outside, pinching route-runners tight to the sideline and minimizing their space to adjust to incoming passes.
Finally, Dennard exhibits one incredibly valuable technique the rest of the Patriots' secondary can't seem to grasp. He watches the receiver to see if he's anticipating an incoming pass, and then he turns his head and locates the ball.
It's a novel concept for a New England defensive backfield that yields big plays and defensive PI even when they're in position, but it's key to his success as a playmaker. It's part of why Dennard has had INTs in each of his last two games, and has three passes defended already.
Dennard's instincts and technique are a breath of fresh air for Pats fans. He's young, and there are plenty of questions still to be answered about his true ceiling.
But the Patriots, who have missed on so many high-round picks in the secondary (Darius Butler, come on down), may have finally struck gold with Dennard.