The Bengals are still high on Darqueze Dennard, the team’s 2014 first-round pick. This, despite the cornerback playing sparingly in his three years on the team.
Even if Dre Kirkpatrick walks away in free agency, the team still has Adam Jones, Josh Shaw, William Jackson III and KeiVarae Russell at cornerback. But, if Kirkpatrick doesn’t remain with the Bengals, or if the team opts to cut Jones due to his legal issues, the starting job should be Dennard’s for the taking.
“Every time he had an opportunity, something happened,” Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said of Dennard, days after the 2016 season ended. “I still think he’ll be a good player in this league. I still think he can play and he can be a starting corner. I don’t feel any different about him than I did last year at this time.”
The former Michigan State star is entering the last year of his rookie contract and the team believes he will have a big impact on their bounce back season in 2017. Duke Tobin, Bengals Director of Player Personnel said so recently, while discussing the incoming draft class.
“Darqueze I think is starting to grow his role and if he can stay healthy and up and going I think you’ll see a big role increase for him,” Tobin said.
In his first three seasons, Dennard has been used, when healthy, primarily inside in the nickel formation, a role he was expected to take on after Leon Hall departed last offseason. After recording only 41 snaps as a rookie, he ended the 2015 season on Injured Reserved, and started this past season on the shelf. That allowed second-year player Josh Shaw to take on the slot cornerback role and he looked pretty good. Shaw graded consistently higher on both ProFootballFocus.com and the B/R NFL 1000 rankings and looks like a building block inside for the Bengals.
Dennard has never looked great in the slot, and he’s never had a chance to play consistently outside with a longjam of corners above him. Part of that is by design, as the Bengals usually bring their rookies along slowly and Dennard’s development was different, though greatly hindered by injuries in all three of his NFL seasons. Kirkpatrick himself went through rough patches after barely playing early in his career and is in line for a pretty substantial contract in the offseason after a very good fifth year.
With Shaw entrenched inside and the Bengals facing questions regarding Jones - who could be cut, and Kirkpatrick - who might be out of their price range, Dennard should get a chance to prove his worth on the boundary. He’s better suited for that role, as he’s fast, strong and barely played zone in college. Playing outside would limit Dennard’s job, as the receiver would only be tasked to run in two directions instead of anywhere on the field. That should suit him well.
The Bengals play a lot of cover 2 and cover 3 defense, either because they don’t trust their cornerbacks to handle man-on-man situations outside or because they don’t want them too. Dennard could handle man-on-man, or at least that was his calling card out of Michigan State:
At Michigan State, Dennard was often put on an island by himself. That forced him into man coverage most of the time. Because of that, Dennard is advanced as a press coverage cornerback. His best move is jamming right at the line of scrimmage and bailing to drop into coverage. Dennard is prone to pushing and grabbing receivers through their routes. While he didn't often get called for penalties in college, he leaves himself open to plenty of them. Though he does seem to know to get grabby and when not to. Has good enough recovery speed if a receiver beats his jam.
The Bengals need to give Dennard a chance in 2017 just to see if he can develop into a starter, just like Kirkpatrick. As a former first round pick, the Bengals can’t waste his talent and must see what they can get out of him. That means playing Dennard at his natural position as a boundary cornerback. Injuries and the Bengals’ way of slowly bringing along young defensive players have stepped on his path, and the selection of Jackson in last year’s draft made it appear like the team might be ready to part ways with him after his rookie deal. But Jackson didn’t play at all last year and now one or both of Kirkpatrick and Jones could leave Cincinnati this offseason.
The Bengals also need to make a decision on Dennard’s fifth year option this offseason. It remains unclear if they’ll hand it over to him without Dennard having any real success with the team to date. But, Kirkpatrick had shown little (though more than Dennard) after three years with the team, and he did receive the fifth year option on his rookie deal.
With less than 600 snaps in three years, it’s hard to call Dennard a bust. He hasn’t had a fair chance, and keeping him inside just because of pecking order - being below Jones and Kirkpatrick - would be a bad decision considering Shaw has earned the job and Dennard is better suited to play outside.
That doesn’t mean he should start. Kirkpatrick had a very good 2016 campaign and if he stays, he will remain a starter. Likewise, if Jones stays, it’s hard to think the Bengals would move him to be a backup. Jackson is a first-round pick too, and if he is as good as advertised, there’s no reason to keep him out of the lineup.
The Bengals need to put their players in the best positions to succeed. Once seen as an elite corner, Dennard needs to play where he can maximize his talents, while also allowing Shaw to become a cornerstone inside. The lack of a clear plan for the position has been frustrating for the last few years and it has hurt Kirkpatrick in the past and now Dennard. Maybe this will be the year Dennard cracks the rotation on the boundary and utilizes his skill set in a proper way.