Bengals select Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State with 24th pick of NFL draft

Marvin Lewis sure does love cornerbacks.

On Thursday night, the Bengals' head coach and select members of the front office selected Darqueze Dennard with the 24th overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft.

The former Michigan State Spartan is one of five corners on the Bengals roster who were drafted in the first round.

Lewis described the position Tuesday as one of the two positions with which a team has to feel comfortable or "everyone else (on the field) suffers.”

The other spot Lewis mentioned was quarterback, one of several spots the franchise wants to address during the early rounds of the three-day draft. They'll also look to plug holes on the depth chart at safety, as well as the offensive and defensive lines.

By all accounts, though, Dennard, playfully known as "No-Fly Zone" during his college days, deserved the distinction of being the Bengals' top pick of 2014.

Some are surprised the team even had a chance to get him.

"I don't think the Bengals expected him to be available," said NFL.com draft analyst Mike Mayock, adding that he fits the scheme of the team's new defensive coordinator. "Dennard is the best press CB in this draft. He fits what defensive coordinator Paul Guenther wants to do. He's one of the best pure football players in this draft."

READ MORE: Darqueze Denard's NFL Draft profile
MORE: COLUMN: Drafting a QB is the wrong move for the Bengals

The Georgia native was the third-ranked corner in this year's draft, according to NFL.com, and the third of five CBs selected in Thursday's first round. His rankings largely derived from the personal and team success he experienced during his senior season in 2013.

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Dennard, who played under former Cincinnati Bearcats coach Mark Dantonio at MSU, was unanimously named an All-American last season. The team captain also walked away with the prestigious Jim Thorpe Award, which is awarded annually to the best defensive back in college football.

He finished the year with 62 total tackles (33 solo), 3 1/2 tackles for loss, 10 pass break-ups and four interceptions, while leading MSU to a 13-1 record and a Rose Bowl victory.

While scouts never doubted Dennard's work ethic, leadership or production, some did have questions about his size.

At just 5-foot-11 he's only average height at best in an era of tall corners, but his overall athletic ability and compact, thick frame helped him make up for those deficits. He's also an above-average open-field tackler.

"He looks the part – well-proportioned, muscular physique with strong calves and thin ankles. Good press strength," NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki wrote, describing the 199-pound athlete as having a "controlled, efficient pedal."

Dennard also exhibits impressive ball skills, making 10 interceptions and 20 pass break-ups over the course of his four-year career. Many of his best games came against Big Ten competition.

There are a few aspects of Dennard's game that need to improve before he's ready to compete for playing time in the NFL.

Although the Spartans were one of the top defensive teams in college football, Dantonio used a lot of man-to-man sets so Dennard needs to adapt to playing in zone coverage. A more willing attitude to be physical and help against the run would also be nice, especially if the Bengals plan to use him in nickel formations.

Another knock against Dennard is the fact he doesn't posses elite speed. He consistently runs about a 4.5 range in the 40-yard dash, which isn't slow but not top-end either.

Still, even though he won't win every foot race, Dennard plays with "competitive play speed," combining natural instincts with knowledge of the game to compensate for any of his biological shortcomings, according to Nawrocki.

"(He) transitions cleanly in man-off coverage. Has very good eyes and anticipation and reacts quickly to what he sees. Good pattern recognition – sorts out what he sees quickly," he wrote. "(He) stays in the hip pocket downfield. Swift speed turn."

Dennard is also "likeable" and "accountable" on the field and in the locker room, and has great football lineage. He's the cousin of New England Patriots defensive back Alfonzo Dennard.

But in the League talent and desire only get a player so far.

Being able to withstand the rigors of a 16-game season is difficult for even the most well-trained athlete, and the Bengals' newest player does have a spotty medical history.

While he played in parts of 44 games during his college career, Dennard suffered several injuries and went through a handful of medical procedures, including a double hernia surgery. Nawrocki said he also displayed some hip stiffness during combine drills.

Unfortunately, Pro Bowl-caliber defensive backs siting on the sidelines because of injuries is a regular sight for members of Who Dey nation.

Leon Hall, to whom Dennard has been favorably compared, is recovering from his second Achilles tendon injury in three years. Fellow corners Dre Kirkpatrick and aging Terence Newman have also been slowed by injuries in recent years.

Dennard received

a clean bill of health during team workouts and was mostly healthy for the better part of the past two seasons, playing in 27 games during that period. But Nawrocki told interested clubs "(Dennard's) durability needs to be examined closely."

Bengals officials and the local fan base should get their first up-close look at Dennard this weekend when he appears at Paul Brown Stadium with some of the team's other draft selections.

The NFL draft continues with rounds two and three Friday night. Rounds four through seven take place Saturday.

Web editor Holly Pennebaker contributed to this report

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