Former Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard is a projected first-round pick with the press-man skill set and physical ability NFL teams want outside of the numbers on the defensive side of the ball.
Today, let’s take a look at the 2013 Jim Thorpe Award winner, discuss his technique at the line of scrimmage and break down how he fits at the pro level from a scheme perspective.
Technique and Physical Ability to Challenge Receivers
When watching Dennard (5'11", 199 lbs), the first thing that jumps out is his ability to use a variety of techniques from a press alignment to jam and stay square versus the release/stem of the receiver.
Dennard is very strong with his initial punch. This allows the cornerback to challenge the release with a mirror technique (slide the feet laterally) to flatten or pin the receiver at the line of scrimmage.
The former Spartan will also use a “bail” technique (open and sink at the snap) to stack on top of the receiver or a “taxi” technique (inch off with shoulders square).
The “taxi” technique shows up often in the pro game (check out some Patrick Peterson tape) and allows Dennard to mix up his looks at the line of scrimmage while staying in a positive position to impact the release of the receiver.
Dennard is very aggressive throughout the route and works hard to stay in a proper leverage position (on the hip) to track the ball down the field. This presents opportunities to “play the pocket” (catch point for the receiver) when teams test the cornerback in the vertical passing game.
Look at the play Dennard made on the deep post versus Ohio State in the Big Ten championship where he drove to the hip of the receiver and stuck his hands in the “pocket” to prevent an explosive gain.
Or go back to the Michigan game when Dennard intercepted a pass in the red zone. With the receiver taking a hard outside release on the 9-route (fade), Dennard used the sideline to pin the receiver to the boundary while opening his hips to find the ball and finish.
Dennard is a true press-man corner who can identify route concepts and win with technique and physicality in one-on-one situations. Those are positive traits that fit the NFL game.
Concerns with Dennard’s Style of Play?
However, that doesn't mean Dennard is limited when playing off the ball or in his transition versus the vertical route tree. He can still read through the three-step game (flat-foot read) and open/run with the receiver or plant to drive downhill on the ball.
Coming out of the NFL Scouting Combine workouts, there was talk about Dennard’s limited flexibility (or stiffness) in his hips. But looking at the tape, Dennard has the ability to flip his hips versus a quick outside release to get back in-phase with the receiver.
Is Dennard “grabby” with his hands down the field?
There is no question there. But anytime you have a cornerback who is physical and wants to play press, there will be some contact throughout the route stem. That's guaranteed.
As Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller mentioned in his scouting report on Dennard, the cornerback may have to adjust his aggressive style at the pro level to avoid getting called for pass interference or defensive holding.
However, I can tell you there are defensive back coaches in the NFL who will welcome his physicality to the secondary if he understands when to use the arm-bar, etc., to challenge receivers throughout the route.
Scheme Fit at the NFL Level
With Dennard, I can see him playing in a Cover 1 or Cover 2 scheme that utilizes pressure under a coordinator who isn’t worried about making the cornerback tackle as an edge-support player.
Here’s a look at the alignment of a Cover 2 cornerback versus a slot formation from the Cowboys-Chiefs matchup last season.
As you can see, the cornerback has to squeeze/restrict the edge versus the stretch, toss, etc., and he also must take on the fullback or pulling guard in the power schemes.
The corner is the primary run-support defender and can’t allow the offense to widen the edge or create an outside running lane—an alignment that requires cornerbacks to bring their “big-boy pads” to the stadium.
I do believe Dennard has to improve his overall tackling ability, but I wouldn't have any issue aligning him down in the box versus a slot formation or to a wing set on the backside.
Dennard is an ideal fit as a Cover 2 defender in the passing game where he could jam, re-route (force an inside release) and sink to protect the safety while reacting to the underneath throws in the flat with a quick burst downhill.
Looking at Cover 1, Dennard has the skill set to play the route tree versus a top-of-the-numbers (or plus-split) alignment. That's his game and the reason we are talking about him as a first-round pick.
Here’s the route tree, releases and stems every cornerback in the NFL has to play on Sundays outside of the numbers.
Whether it is the hard inside stem to create room for the 7-cut, or the 15-yard dig route where the receiver will press into the defensive back to generate separation at the break point, Dennard has the coverage skills to play these routes.
And that gives the defensive coordinator the opportunity to be aggressive in the game plan.
Dennard’s Upside as a Projected First-Round Pick
Given Dennard’s talent as a press-man corner, plus his physicality, he should be expected to compete for a starting job as a rookie.
As I said above, Dennard’s style of play meshes with the NFL game because he can challenge receivers at the line of scrimmage and win throughout the route stem to finish at the point of attack.
While Dennard doesn't have the vertical speed or lateral quickness compared to some of the top prospects at the position, he can develop into a solid corner who contributes early in his career because of his ability to win with technique and compete physically versus NFL wide receivers.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.