With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Before and after the 2012 scouting combine, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 draft-eligible players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Nebraska cornerback Alphonzo Dennard. Dennard is one of the most physical cornerbacks in this draft class. Just ask his teammates, who used to complain to senior wide receiver Brandon Kinnie about Dennard's tactics during practice. "He puts his arm into your chin," Kinnie said in a December interview, "and you feel it." Added redshirt freshman Kenny Bell: "He sure does love beating on people."
Ouch. If that's how he treats teammates, imagine what he does to opponents.
Dennard was able to beat on people with impunity during his days as a prep linebacker, but too much aggression from a cornerback can lead to penalties, or in the case of the Capital One Bowl fracas against Alshon Jeffery, an ejection. But Dennard is not a hothead in the D'Angelo Hall mold, nor is he one of the Three Stooges. (Come to think of it, Hall would make a heck of a Shemp. But I digress). There is more to his game than chin-arming. Dennard has the coverage skills to be an excellent NFL starter, though his coaches may have to live with the occasional holding foul.
Pros: Dennard is at his best when playing 7 to 10 yards off his receiver. When giving a big cushion, he reads route combinations and reacts quickly to the throw. Dennard can beat the ball to a receiver in front of him when he sniffs out a route and gets into good position to run with receivers on deep routes. He also reads and reacts well to trickery: Michigan State used a Wildcat reverse to sneak the quarterback up the sideline on a wheel route, and while Dennard allowed a completion on the play, he stayed in his zone and kept the receiver in front of him, turning a sure touchdown into just a 20-yard gain.
As mentioned above, Dennard likes to mix it up, and he will jam his receiver hard when playing close to the line. He will ride his receiver off the line and redirect him, though Dennard sometimes takes this tactic too far. When allowing a cushion, he anticipates running plays and races up to get into support position. Dennard makes a lot of tackles on receivers he was not covering: If the tight end shakes loose from a linebacker on a crossing route, Dennard will step up to put a hit on him.
Dennard has some catch-up speed in the open field, so he can recover from his own mistakes. He is hard to shake once he turns and runs, and he can trail receivers on double-move routes. He leaps well and will fight for the ball.
Cons: Dennard is well-built for his size, and he jumps well, but he is still short and not very powerful. In run defense, he is often more willing than able: If he does not use quickness to evade a blocker, he is likely to get pushed aside. The same happens on wide receiver screens. He handled big receivers well in college but will have his hands full against Marques Colston types at the NFL level.
Dennard is not smooth when backpedalling, and he will lose some speed when he turns to run with his receiver. That is one reason he performs better in "off" coverage. Dennard's push-and-clutch jam technique leads to some holding penalties.
Dennard does not have exceptional hands, and he will bat away some balls that other cornerbacks would intercept. Dennard's tackling technique needs work, as he leaves his feet too quickly and doesn't consistently wrap his arms.
Conclusion: Put Dennard in a Cover-3-heavy system like the Packers or Steelers use, and while he will not get a lot of attention, he will do a lot to help his teams win. Playing off the ball, he breaks up enough plays, supports the run, and cleans up after receptions well enough to keep offenses from generating any easy yardage. His feisty temperament and physical style will take some receivers off their games, and second-tier receivers won't be able to escape him.
As a man-coverage or Cover-2 style cornerback, Dennard also has potential, but his coaches will have to live with some holding penalties and be ready to offer a lot of safety support over the top. Small cornerbacks like Dennard often succeed in Cover-2 schemes if they are willing to throw their bodies around in run support, and Dennard definitely fits that bill.
Dennard does not project as an "island" cornerback, but there are rarely more than five or six of those in the NFL at any one time. He should develop into a high-quality starter.
NFL Comparison: Tramon Williams, Green Bay Packers
More Shutdown 50:
#28: Dontari Poe, DT/DE, Memphis | #29: Whitney Mercilus, OLB/DE, Illinois | #30: Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson| #31, Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson | #32: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford | #33: Bobby Massie, OT, Mississippi | #34: Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson | #35: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama | #36: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse | #37: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech | #38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall | #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers| #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina| #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska| #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska| #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia| #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State| #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU | #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy