The NFL draft scouting process is as fickle as anything you’ll find in major sports. Scouts evaluate prospects in-season, attending practices and games to get the full film and live experiences needed to make an honest scouting report.
Darqueze Dennard repeatedly shut down top receivers the past two seasons as the featured player on Michigan State's defense, being named first-team All-Big Ten as a junior and winning the Jim Thorpe Award as a senior, which is given to the country’s best defensive back annually.
But between his final game at Michigan State and a month before the 2014 draft, despite no legitimate games being played, Darqueze Dennard has seen his draft value diminish, and reports are now that the cornerback has a chance to fall out of the first round entirely.
Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller tweeted on April 9 that he wouldn’t be surprised if Dennard goes in Round 2.
On film, Dennard did a bit of everything over his career, allowing for teams to decide how exactly they’d use him at the next level. Generally playing man coverage and routinely being matched up with the opposing team’s best receiver, Dennard relies on aggressive hand usage to keep his receivers off balance.
In press coverage, Dennard was consistently able to redirect his assignment, delaying a receiver’s timing to get to the top of the route and generally forcing the quarterback to look elsewhere. In off coverage, Dennard uses his hands to constantly grab and re-adjust his receiver, sometimes to the point of potentially drawing flags at the next level.
However, it’s this physicality throughout a receiver’s route tree combined with his instincts and timing on inside- and outside-breaking routes that allowed him so much success in college.
After running a 4.42 40-yard dash at the NFL combine according to Aaron Wilson of the National Football Post, any concerns over whether or not Dennard would be able to run vertically with speedy NFL receivers should have been erased. After Indianapolis, he was cemented as my top cornerback prospect in the 2014 NFL draft.
So why are teams cooling on Dennard as a prospect? How could a player with his college production and scouting report not be viewed as a top cornerback prospect?
There are a few potential explanations, and all of them give a bit of insight into how NFL teams truly value first-round picks.
For one, size is always a priority. Every draft, there’s a handful of undersized guys who stick in the NFL, but they generally don’t go in the first round. For cornerbacks, especially ones like Dennard who primarily played man coverage in college and likely will in the NFL, having just 30.25" arms is a huge red flag.
By comparison, Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State has 33.125" arms, Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech has 32.875" arms and Bradley Roby of Ohio State has 31.5" arms. All three of those prospects are considered to be potential first-round cornerbacks, too.
Another reason for his potential dip in draft stock is his over-aggressiveness with his hands down the field, which will likely result in more pass interference calls than it did in college. As a cornerback without great length, Dennard relies on subtle hand contact to stay tight to his receiver, and that reliance could make teams worry that it won’t work against NFL receivers.
And finally, a key reason why Dennard may slip on draft day is the depth of this cornerback class. While it isn’t the deepest in recent history, there are plenty of second-round options that have higher upsides than Dennard. Prospects like Stanley Jean-Baptiste of Nebraska, Pierre Desir of Lindenwood or Phillip Gaines of Rice all have impressive numbers and measurables that could intrigue teams early in the second round.
Instead of taking a slightly undersized cornerback in Round 1, securing one of the top talents in Round 2 and choosing a different position in the first could be a strategy more than one team considers.
When it’s all said and done, I believe enough in Dennard’s ability on film to give him a first-round grade. His physicality, ball skills and instincts make him ready for the NFL, and while he may never be an All-Pro, he appears to be destined for a long NFL career.
However, NFL teams may not value his ability the same way I do, so don’t be surprised if Dennard is the third or fourth cornerback taken on draft day. For a prospect that did as much right as he possibly could have over the past two seasons, it’s a testament to how unique the NFL draft process is that teams may not value him highly in the 2014 NFL draft.