As we count down days until the 2018 draft, we will take a look at the first round pick selections by the Cincinnati Bengals over the last 10 years.
The Cincinnati Bengals selected cornerback Darqueze Dennard out of Michigan St. with the 24th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. The Bengals made a commitment to putting together an elite cornerback core at the turn of the decade. They brought in Adam Jones and Terrence Newman alongside 2007 first round pick Leon Hall to give the team a veteran presence. The Bengals then began drafting elite prospects to grow under their newly signed veterans, starting with Dre Kirkpatrick in 2012.
Dennard was the next elite prospect the Bengals landed. In a loaded class containing Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert, Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller, and TCU’s Jason Verrett, Dennard was arguably the best corner. His fluid athleticism combined with natural instincts and solid fundamentals gave him a high floor – to me at least, Dennard felt like a “can’t-miss” guy. Many analysts thought Dennard would go top-15, so his fall to the Bengals at pick 24 was unexpected. Nevertheless, the Bengals got a perfect addition to their growing cornerback core in Dennard.
Dennard’s rookie year was spent almost entirely on the bench. As noted above, the Bengals had brought in multiple corners in order to bolster the position. This meant Dennard was stuck behind Jones, Newman, Hall, and Kirkpatrick on the depth chart. He only netted 17 tackles on the year, most of which were on special teams (although he did have one sack). Through one season, Dennard’s progress was very difficult to track.
In 2015 and 2016, Dennard started to see a little more time as a corner, especially in 3 cornerback sets. He played about 15% of available defensive snaps in 2015, and more than doubled that number to 35% in 2016. Dennard increased his tackle counts each season too, going up to 20 in 2015 and 47 in 2016. He added 1 interception over that two-year span.
While the Bengals slowly gave Dennard a larger role in the defense, he was still somewhat of a liability. In those 3 cornerback sets, teams often targeted Dennard. Although he did improve somewhat in 2016, Dennard was struggling to adjust to the NFL. Through three seasons, it certainly seemed like the Bengals’ selection of Dennard did not pan out.
Last season, Dennard had a breakout year. After Kirkpatrick inked a huge extension, his play slipped quite a bit. As he fell off, Dennard picked up some of slack. For the first time in his career, Dennard played over 50% of defensive snaps. In fact, Dennard was transitioned from both special teams and defense to almost entirely defense. Not only did Dennard’s playing time increase, but his play drastically improved. He led the team in tackles (85) and notched 2 interceptions, one of which was a pick 6. Dennard even graded out as an “above average” corner on PFF. 2017 finally showcased the potential the Bengals saw in Dennard in the draft.
Though it took a while, it looks like the 2014 first round selection of Darqueze Dennard will pay off. Dennard learned behind the veterans, and finally made the transition to a starting role. The big question next year for the Bengals and Dennard is will he remain on the team long-term. Though his play was stellar last year and should be again this year, Dennard’s contract will expire. Given his breakout, he should command a fairly large contract. Can the Bengals afford to resign Dennard with Kirkpatrick on the books already and looming potential megadeals for Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, and William Jackson III? That remains to be seen.
Regardless of his future in Cincinnati, though, Dennard was a successful draft pick.