During the course of the 2014 NFL Draft, many Pittsburgh Steelers devotees seemed to have settled their hopes, if not their bets, on their favored team selecting Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard in the first round. The Steelers chose to pass on him, and instead, the rival Cincinnati Bengals selected him several picks later in the round.
Dennard has struggled to log a lot of playing time over the course of his career in his third season, in part due to the fact that the Bengals have had a lot of first-round talent at cornerback ahead of him, but also in part because he has dealt with injuries.
Right now, it appears that the two factors that have held back his playing time are moving to the way side, as he is expected to play an increased role in the Bengals’ next game coming out of the bye week and for the remainder of the season, in part because of a desired lineup shakeup, and in part because he is healthier.
After Cincinnati got out to a 3-4-1 start through their first half of the season, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther promised that he would spend the bye week, which they have just come out of, looking at ways to get things back on track by finding players who are ready to be bigger contributors within their depth, and Dennard is one of those chief players.
He is expected to move into the slot for the Bengals alongside starting former first-round draft picks Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick. Dennard has played in seven games this year, netting one ‘start’, but he has only seen 130 snaps on the season.
Cincinnati’s primary slot defender this year has been Josh Shaw, who played 298 snaps through the first eight games of the season. Chris Lewis-Harris, since released, also spent a game or two managing that role earlier in the season, I believe, while Shaw was injured.
Dennard seemed to be primed for a bigger role last year before he blew out his shoulder in November. He took all the way up through training camp recovering from that injury, only to come back and injure his ankle, which has remained an issue on some level over the course of this season.
But Guenther believes that the time off during the bye week has helped improve his health situation, and the tape has helped him mark Dennard as a player who can help to improve a defense that has not been up to snuff for a team that just went 12-4 last season and won the division. The Bengals have in fact already guaranteed that they will finish with a worse record in 2016.
The Bengals plan to put their new defensive tweaks to the test on Sunday against the Giants, who are riding a three-game winning streak to reach a 5-3 record. Meanwhile, it is unclear if rookie first-round cornerback William Jackson III—whom the Steelers were targeting—will return from injured reserve at any point this season.