On paper, you would think it is going to be very difficult for opposing defenses to throw the ball well against the 2016 Bengals defense. With four first round cornerbacks and two young safeties fresh off of new contracts, athletes litter the back end of the team's defensive unit.
One of those first round players is Darqueze Dennard, who was the team's top pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. While he has taken a bit of a backseat to other cornerbacks on the roster, he has slowly been climbing up the depth chart--especially last season. The team will be relying on him to primarily man the slot in 2016, but with only one interception to his name in two years, he'll need to step up this year to bolster the team's pass defense. With that being said, Dennard comes in on our players with the most to prove in 2016 list at No. 7.
Why he makes the list:
Health: Dennard appeared to be rounding nicely into form midway through the 2015 season, often working in the slot. The apex of his 2015 campaign were strong performances against the Bills and the Browns, but he lacked overall consistency. His year was cut short because of a season-ending shoulder injury against the Cardinals in Week 11, which required surgery, and he's been rehabbing this offseason. He also missed six games as a rookie from various nicks, and so with Leon Hall looking like he won't return to Cincinnati, Dennard will need to stay healthy for the slot.
Living up to Potential: Dennard was tabbed as one of the best corners in the 2014 Draft, ironically with a skill set similar to Hall's. A willing tackler with good enough speed and a lot of physicality, Dennard has all the tools to be a solid NFL defensive back for a lot of years. While his health plays into his not living up to his potential, as does the team's preference of veterans, a sound season manning the slot and occasionally the outside will give the Bengals hope for his capability of replacing Adam Jones as a starter when the time eventually comes.
What he needs to prove:
Becoming this Generation's Leon Hall: A true professional in a lot of senses, Hall did everything the coaches asked of him in his nine years with Cincinnati. Dennard is taking the opposite career path from Hall, i.e. starting out as primarily a slot corner and possibly transitioning outside as he develops, but it was the grizzled veteran's ability to cover a number of different types of receiving targets, while playing through and coming back strong from a myriad of injuries that made him so valuable. In the slot, Dennard will be tasked with covering backs, shifty wideouts and tight ends, so he'll need to up his game in year three.
Coming up big in the AFC North: With the Browns adding five receivers in this year's Draft, including the exciting Corey Coleman, the Steelers having a number of quality weapons, even without Martavis Bryant (suspended), and the Ravens bolstering their receiver group, having a guy to create frustration for the division rivals would be huge. Reggie Nelson was a thorn in Ben Roethlisberger's side, but with his leaving for the Raiders, the Bengals could use another guy to make big plays in the six annual divisional games. If Dennard can prove he can cover different types of receiving targets, he should get his hands on a few passes.