Tuesday Afternoon Prospect: Darqueze Dennard, Future Carolina Panther?

Andy Lyons

It’s no secret that the Carolina Panthers need help in their secondary. Today I’ll take a look at one college cornerback prospect who is probably already on the Panthers radar.

Darqueze Dennard has been one of the best cornerbacks in all of college football this year. His ability to shut down opposing wide receivers is a big reason why the Michigan Spartans defense is currently ranked number one in the nation overall.

Dennard’s excellent performance on the field has earned him All-Big Ten honors for the second consecutive year. He has also been a finalist for the Jim Thorpe award, which is given to the best defensive back in the country. Dennard’s statline is impressive – he leads his team with a combined 20 defended passes, 4 interceptions and ranks fourth on the team in tackles with 56.

In my opinion, Dennard has all the tools to become an elite man corner in the NFL – he has good size at 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, is extremely physical at the line of scrimmage, and is a gifted playmaker with the football.

When I watched Dennard on tape I saw a lot of similarities to Xavier Rhodes, the rookie from Florida State who has quietly been having an excellent rookie year with the Minnesota Vikings. Although Dennard is smaller than Rhodes, they are both still talented athletes who excel when put on an island in man coverage against opposing wide receivers.

Something interesting to keep in mind is that the Carolina Panthers were also considering taking Xavier Rhodes at #14 in the 2013 Draft, according to GM Dave Gettleman. The NFL has become a passing league, and Gettleman understands that the best way to defend these prolific passing offenses is with big, strong cornerbacks who are not afraid to get physical with receivers. Since Dennard and Rhodes play very similar styles of football, there’s a high chance that the Panthers might already be looking at Dennard for the 2014 Draft.

Below I’ll offer some quick film notes from two of Michigan State’s 2012 games against Boise State and Nebraska.

Strengths

- Well built cornerback with good size and solid base.

- Given a lot of freedom in MSU defense – almost exclusively lined up on the outside in man coverage but also shadowed receivers in the slot.

- Great use of hands when jamming opposing receivers. Extremely physical style of play helps disrupt receiver routes early.

- Smooth hips allow him to mirror opposing wide receivers flawlessly.

- Talented playmaker. Turns back head to locate and play ball in the air. Long arms also help him break up many passes.

- Little wasted vertical movement -- perfectly times his jumps and outboxes wide receivers when going up for the ball.

- Is a very smart gambler. Generates a lot of turnovers.

- Although best suited in man coverage, is more than capable in a zone defense. Has excellent backpedal and is able to quickly diagnose plays by reading the quarterbacks eyes.

Weaknesses

- Sometimes too physical with wide receivers down the field. Will be flagged for pass interference in NFL unless he cleans his game up.

- Does not have elite speed. Can get beat vertically by faster receivers if he can’t get a good initial jam.

- Occasionally looks uncomfortable in zone -- gives up too much cushion to opposing receivers, which allows for easy receptions.

- As is the case with most cornerbacks, willing to get involved in run defense, but poor tackler. Inconsistent tackling form.

How he fits in Panthers scheme

This season, Panthers Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott introduced some combination coverage schemes consisting of one cornerback isolated in man coverage on an island, with the rest of the defense in a standard zone, usually Cover 3. However, this experiment has mostly been a disaster for the Panthers due to the lack of talent at the cornerback position. Early in the season they put Josh Thomas on islands against opposing receivers, but he continuously got burnt deep down the field, which eventually resulted in him getting benched. Recently they have tried isolating Captain Munnerlyn on an island in man coverage, and the results haven’t been much better, as Munnerlyn has also given up several big plays down the field. It’s obvious that the Panthers want to play more man coverage in their secondary, but due to the lack of talent at cornerback, they just can’t.

Darqueze Dennard would fix this problem. He would be guaranteed one of the starting cornerback jobs on the outside in the Panthers defense, as his strengths in man coverage would fit perfectly with the hybrid coverage scheme the Panthers have unsuccessfully tried to implement this season. Dennard’s addition to the secondary would improve an already elite Panthers defense by finally giving it a reliable, playmaking cornerback.

Dennard’s excellent size, physicality and vertical ability also means that the Panthers could occasionally put him in the slot to cover tight ends in the middle of the field, something the Panthers have struggled with a lot this season.

Even if the Panthers opt to play more zone coverage, Dennard would still be a good fit because of his great instincts and ability to generate turnovers. Although it might be wasting some of his talents, there is no doubt Dennard is better than any of the cornerbacks the Panthers currently have, and even in a zone he would make a big impact for the defense.

In short, Darqueze Dennard would transform the entire Panthers secondary overnight. His ability in coverage is unmatched by any other cornerback in this year`s draft class.

Draft projection

At the moment, Dennard is listed by most reliable scouting sites as a mid or late first round pick, but this could easily change, especially in a loaded offensive line and wide receiver draft class.

Realistically, the Panthers will end the season with a pick in the mid to late twenties. Xavier Rhodes went to the Minnesota Vikings with the number 25 pick overall in the 2013 Draft, and I think Dennard will also fall somewhere in this range.

So, Panthers fans, what are your thoughts? Despite their offensive needs, would you take Darqueze Dennard with the Panthers first round pick? Why or why not?

Feel free to discuss below.

*I would like to thank CSR Author Derek Leazer for giving me the opportunity to write this week`s special Tuesday Afternoon Prospect. I had a great time writing it and hope you all enjoyed the read!

--CP

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