It was clear that the Cincinnati Bengals needed to bring in some youth to the cornerback spot in this draft. The depth at the position was always going to give them opportunities in the first round, but Darqueze Dennard falling to them wasn't definite.
The 22-year-old Dennard is 5'10, 199 pounds. He attended Michigan State where he established himself as one of the most feared coverage backs in the country.
He is a technically sound player who has the flexibility to fill a variety of roles for the Bengals. He is best suited to play press man coverage because he excels at redirecting receivers early in their routes before latching onto a shoulder to turn down the field.
Like any defender the Bengals hope to draft, Dennard is well rounded in that he can also sit in zone coverage and effectively read plays. Despite not being an exceptionally big or thick player, he is a strong and willing tackler who will fight through blocks on run defense.
Where Dennard struggles is in his ability to recover in coverage. If he fails to disrupt receivers early in their routes, then he tends to grab a receiver's jersey to prevent separation. He is good at hiding this contact, but it's less likely to work against quality NFL receivers and that tactic runs the risk of drawing flags.
Dennard also isn't exceptionally effective when competing for the football in the air. He tracks the ball fairly well but lacks the length and ball skills to consistently outduel receivers on jump balls. These are aspects of his game that the Bengals will hope to develop over the coming years.
Importantly, Dennard can be an instant contributor and a long-term starter for the Bengals. This is something Ian Wharton of Bleacher Report noted before the draft.
Dennard is a terrific fit with an aggressive defense such as Seattle or Cincinnati in the first round because of his experience and comfort being on an island with a receiver.
Although not the best athlete, he has very refined technique that overcomes most physical mismatches. He has the desired aggressive mindset and is a leader in the secondary. I fully expect Dennard to be an instant contributor.
The Bengals are a team that is trying to take the next step in the playoffs. Because of that, they can't afford to waste first-round picks, and they'd prefer to take players who are more likely to contribute right away.
Dennard fits that mold despite being a relatively young player.
In terms of transition from college to the pros, cornerback is one of the toughest positions to perform well at during your rookie season. Dennard should be an exception to this rule because he has advanced technique, though there are some minor flaws that need to be addressed.
His physical nature also means he won't be a liability against the run or the type of player whom opposing quarterbacks will try to exploit.
If the Bengals had taken another cornerback who was available, such as Bradley Roby, then they would likely be waiting for a year or more for him to make an impact. Dennard's readiness is the biggest upside of this selection.
Dennard can improve at the NFL level, but it's unclear how much. He isn't exceptionally quick or fast, and he doesn't have great length. When he is matched up against the best receivers in the NFL, he may not be able to impact the game at all.
There are very few defensive backs who can handle receivers such as Brandon Marshall, A.J. Green, Dez Bryant and Julio Jones. None can handle Calvin Johnson, but there are a select few who can force the elite wideouts to earn their production.
The risk with Dennard is that he will be bullied by bigger receivers and beaten deep by faster receivers. The consistency in his technique and how physical he can be without getting called for too many penalties will determine how successful he will be.
When you draft a talented player and address a need at the same time, it's hard to be too disappointed. If the Bengals defense continues to be one of the best, most well-rounded units in the NFL, then this pick should prove to be very good.
However, if more holes begin to appear around Dennard and more is asked of the first-rounder, then opinion could change.
He is not a transcendent talent and he will likely never be on the level of a Darrelle Revis or Richard Sherman.
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