The more time I spent reading into Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard, the more I began wondering, "why did it take so long for someone to draft him." Character. Production. Effectiveness. Talent. Leadership. Intangibles. Twenty three picks came and went before Cincinnati capitalized on an unexpected projection, grabbing a player, whom they they had in their top-ten, still available by the time they were on the clock... a player that that they had momentarily "bantered" about trading up for.
"There’s always the banter in the room," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis Thursday night. "There were a couple of teams as you saw that wanted to slide back a little bit. I think we valued keeping the picks we have and it kind of worked out for us. There were teams interested in coming up into that spot, but we felt good because we were really hitting an area we wanted to address with players available that we felt were good enough for that spot."
Dennard, the first Michigan State player drafted in the first round since the Lions selected Charles Rogers in the first round in '03, has exceptional numbers; the type of production that Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio says could land Dennard on an All-Pro roster one day.
According to MLive.com, Dennard was unconscionably good against opposing receivers.
Dennard had 111 passes targeted to his area last season, and only 17 were completed (15.32 percent) for 91 yards. He defended 14 passes, with four interceptions and 10 deflections. On 55.86 percent of those passes, Dennard re-routed or jammed his man away from the ball. Receivers averaged 5.35 yards per reception against Dennard, the lowest figure by any defensive back since the BCS era begin in 1998.
Michigan State defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett is quick to praise Dennard's character first, production second.
"First off, whoever gets Darqueze is getting a good person,'' said Barnett via MLive.com. "The fact he is spending the draft with his family tells you something. His grandparents don't fly, so he went down there to be with them."
In fact, Dennard was surrounded by nearly three dozen friends and family, along with a passing Stetson baseball team, in a conference room at a Marriott in Macon, Georgia. When Dennard was drafted, he hugged his grandmother and the Allman Brothers' "Dream" blasted on the radio, per Macon.com.
And until that moment, Dennard calmly sat in the front row, chewing gum and watching the draft. He got up a little bit after 10 to stretch his legs, then he sat next to his grandmother, Peggie, for a few minutes. Then the magic phone call, at 10:51 p.m., came. Anticipation grew, and then the room exploded when Dennard got off the phone, turned around and smiled. A few minutes later, the scene was repeated -- except with Dennard calmly sitting down again -- when the announcement became official.
But let's face facts: You don't win games just on character. Talent is critical; as is the translation of that talent into production.
"The thing about Darqueze, he's an ultimate competitor, and when you're that way, he's always trying to get better and taking coaching, so I think he has another level he can go," said Barnett. "The key is how he goes about his development. He's one of those guys that can take the classroom to the field immediately, on the board or on film, and transfer it to the field. He listens well, he understands, and he's not afraid to ask questions. If he makes a mistake, he'll come back and get it right.''
The 2013 Jim Thorpe award winner and former Spartan team Captain will thus make the transition back into a student. His mentors are Terence Newman, who is entering the final year of a two-year deal and perhaps his final NFL season. Leon Hall, who would be a great role model of someone like Dennard; especially since Cincinnati's secondary coach Vance Joseph is so quick to compare the two. He'll practice against A.J. Green, one of the league's elite receivers, and Marvin Jones, who scored ten touchdowns in '13. Grooming would be an all-too simplistic definition. But it won't take long.
"He’s a solid player. He’s smart, he’s physical, he’s competitive," said Bengals defensive backs coach Vance Joseph. "He does things right. In this league as a corner, if you’re a technique sound corner and you play smart, you can play a long time. There are guys that don’t make a bunch of plays, but don’t give up big plays. That’s the key in this league — to be consistent and smart, and be tough and competitive. He’s that, he’s that."
"He was a three-year starter there. In their system, he plays up close to the receiver almost every play, and their safeties are about eight yards off the ball," said Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. "He literally had no help, and teams that played against Michigan State knew that, ‘Hey this guy’s out there on an island one on one.’ And he was tremendous. I think he had 10 career interceptions — a really, really good senior year. He’s just an all-football kind of guy. He’s not real flashy, but he’ll do the dirty work. He’ll tackle. He’ll play special teams if he needs to. But he’s definitely the guy in this draft that really fit us."
There were some prognostications that Dennard was a top-ten projection, especially in Cincinnati's war room. When he fell, the Bengals pounced but the need to trade up was an unnecessary discussion as Cincinnati picked up good value
"I don't think he was ever in the discussion for the top 10," said Dan Kadar with SB Nation's Mocking the Draft, who had mocked Dennard to the Bengals in his final mock draft. "Justin Gilbert was really the only corner in the discussion for the top 10 and even then it was at 10 to Detroit. Dennard was always lumped into the teens to early 20s of the draft."
Cincinnati clearly grabbed the player that they were looking for. A next-generation level player that will one day, hopefully with Dre Kirkpatrick, replace the Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones era smoothly.