With the 2014 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. And to that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
The SI 64 -- which can be found in its entirety here -- uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class and why they’re slotted as such. The final spot outside the top 10 belongs to a dominant college cornerback, who is in the mix to be the first player at this position drafted in 2014.
No. 11 Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Bio: A true shutdown cornerback can radically change a matchup's outlook in the NFL. The impact at the college level tends to be even more severe, with teams -- not all, but certainly some -- limited in their trustworthy options at wide receiver.
That reality was at the heart of Michigan State's incredible defensive success during a 2013 season that ended with Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl victories. The Spartans were exceptionally talented in the front seven, manhandling foes at the line of scrimmage. Much of what they accomplished overall, though, snowballed from being able to rely on Darqueze Dennard to clamp down an entire side of the field.
"He's not only one of the best corners in the country, he's one of the top defensive players in the country," Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said of Dennard as the Spartans were en route to finishing third in scoring defense at 13.2 points per game. "He allows us to play aggressively on defense. We wouldn't trade him for any other player in college football."
Dennard finished his senior season with four interceptions and 10 pass breakups. He also recorded 62 tackles, as Michigan State did not hesitate to ask its aggressive star CB to help seal the edge against the run. The 5-foot-11 Dennard captured the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back; he also earned unanimous All-America honors and was a finalist for the Bronco Nagurski Award (nation's top defensive player).
The Spartans amassed 42 victories spread over Dennard's four seasons -- a phenomenal resurgence for a program that sat out the bowl season five times between 2000 and '07, and had not won a Rose Bowl since 1988. There was more to that success than just the presence of Dennard, of course, but few players across college football were more valuable to their teams over the past couple of seasons.
Can he replicate his performance at the next level? He appears set up rather well to do so, if for no other reason than that Michigan State employed a heavy dosage of pressing man-to-man coverage. With the NFL's rules drifting further and further in favor of the offense, many defenses have pushed back with in-your-face systems.
Because of how adept he is in that coverage, and how much he seems to enjoy diving into the mix against the run, Dennard gives off the appearance of an NFL-ready cornerback. He may be rewarded with a top-10 selection.
Strengths: Receivers have to work to get off the line against Dennard, because he often plays up tight against them and prevents clean releases with his size and strength. Used his hands right up to the line of drawing penalties -- jammed well, plus knew when he could and could not latch on downfield. Flips his hips quickly when he needs to. Dennard shows an impressive knack for knowing when to turn for the football, then rarely hesitates in making a play on it. Even when receivers do manage to find openings against him, Dennard can make their lives miserable. He contests passes through the catch, swatting and ripping at the football.
Plays almost like an extra linebacker against the run. When there was not a receiver on his side of the field, he walked down to the edge of the line pre-snap and threw himself into the pile. If he was engaged on a run play, Dennard worked until the whistle to fend off his blocker. He tackles well for a cornerback, too, eschewing that shoulder-first approach for a shoulders-squared technique.
Dennard is clearly a confident defender, no matter what he is tasked with on the field.
Weaknesses: Clocked in just north of 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine, and that speaks to lingering concerns over his speed. Physical NFL receivers may not be as bothered by Dennard's press coverage. So even if he shows the continued ability to smoothly turn and run, Dennard may lose some battles on deep balls. The average speed also all but eliminates the possibility that Dennard could work into a lineup as a slot guy (not that any team necessarily would want to play him there).
Issue No. 2 with Dennard's game concerns his experience with Michigan State -- the Spartans utilized almost exclusively man-to-man defenses, so the jury is out on how well Dennard would transition to a zone-heavy approach.
May unfairly be knocked for playing behind the aforementioned, dominant Michigan State front seven. As is often the case with college players who enjoyed such benefits, some will wonder if Dennard can provide the same type of supremacy if he lands on a team less imposing up front.
Conclusion: Justin Gilbert may be taller, stronger and faster than Dennard, but the ex-Spartan's hard-nosed approach to the cornerback position will land him atop at least a few draft boards. Aside from the 4.5 speed -- which is about a tenth of a second higher than would be ideal -- Dennard looks ready to step in and start as an NFL cornerback.