The Cincinnati Bengals secondary could look very different in 2016 with impending free agents like Leon Hall, Adam Jones, Reggie Nelson and George Iloka.
The hope is Darqueze Dennard will step up and take on a bigger role next season after showing flashes through his first two years. The former 24th-overall pick out of Michigan State was Cincy's first pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, but like most young players, has played sparingly through his first two seasons.
That's the approach Cincinnati took with fellow corner Dre Kirkpatrick, who rarely saw the field as a rookie and not much more during his second year before finally emerging over his next two seasons before earning a full-time starting spot in his fourth season.
Dennard might not have to wait quite as long after showing quicker progress than that of Kirkpatrick. It seemed like Dennard may actually pass Kirkpatrick on the depth chart during training camp, but a groin injury cost him much of the preseason as Kirkpatrick ran away with the starting spot.
That led to Dennard opening the year as the fourth corner. But, he still managed to play a lot thanks to a lingering back issue with Leon Hall. Dennard had his best game as a pro in Week 6 at Buffalo, a game in which he secured his first NFL interception.
But just as it appeared Dennard was coming on, his season ended prematurely thanks to a torn shoulder labrum and rotator cuff suffered in Week 10 at Arizona. It was a similar injury to what Dennard had in college, and he's confident he'll overcome this latest setback.
"I’ve kind of dealt with this injury before in college, I tore my labrum before my junior season, so I have had this operation before, or something close to this operation before, and I actually healed really, really fast," Dennard said, via the Cincinnati Enquirer. "It was three months then, when I had it in college. They said six months, and the season is a long ways (away) so hopefully towards camp I’ll be good to go."
Dennard is now almost three months from when he suffered the injury, and he likes where his progress is in his recovery.
"I’m feeling good," Dennard said of his shoulder. "Doctors say I’m healing up pretty well I’m still taking it slow. The season is still far off. The best thing right now is just make sure I’m healing right, doing the right things to prepare for next year."
As it stands, Dennard's role on the team next year will largely be determined by what happens in free agency. The good news is, Dennard has shown he can play on the boundary and in the slot, so if just one of Hall or Jones is let go, Dennard should get a starting spot next season.
Even if both are back, it's possible Dennard can take over Hall's role in the slot or take a share of the snaps with Jones or Kirkpatrick on the boundary. There's also the possibility that Hall is brought back but moved to safety to help replace Nelson and/or Iloka.
Whatever happens, Dennard has a bright future in the Queen City if he can overcome his latest injury and stay on the field more going forward.