Since he was selected in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft by the Arizona Cardinals, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has had a pro football career full of some fairly epic highs, but also enough frustrating lapses in consistency to make some wonder if he'd ever reach the top of his amazing physical potential. In his three seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, he picked off 13 passes and returned four of those interceptions for touchdowns. Before the 2011 season, he was sent to the Philadelphia Eagles in the disastrous Kevin Kolb trade (which got as many people fired as any trade in NFL history). And in two seasons in Philly, under some very strange schematic conditions, he logged just three interceptions, saw his playing time go down at first (though he led all Philly pass defenders in snaps in 2012), and disappeared from the A-list.
In March, Rodgers-Cromartie signed a two-year, $10 million contract with $5 million guaranteed with the Denver Broncos -- an undeniably great team with a few issues in their secondary. One of the things that appealed to Rodgers-Cromartie about the Broncos, which may surprise those who have labeled him a chronic underachiever, was that Denver's coaches were so frank in their evaluations of his overall play.
"They told me about my flaws," Rodgers-Cromartie told the Bradenton Herald near the end of the three-day basketball camp he was holding for kids in Florida. "Nobody had done that, and it impressed me. They told me what I needed to work and how they would get me better instead of telling me about what I could do."
And to his credit, Rodgers-Cromartie found that attractive right away, because it didn't take long for Denver's coaching staff to tell him just what was up. “When I came in, the one thing that stood out when talking to everybody, they didn’t really just talk about what I can do as a player, they pointed out my flaws and told me how they can help me get better," Rodgers-Cromartie said at the press conference announcing his signing. "Just the guys they’ve got here, the coaching staff, I really bought into the system, to be honest.”
What's not so impressive if it's true is that nobody had ever sat Rodgers-Cromartie down and told him where he could improve. Seems to be a Coaching 101 prerequisite, but for whatever reason, that's what either happened, or what Rodgers-Cromartie took away from it. Now, however, he's in a place where he knows what's expected, and that can often be the lift-off point for players with great athletic talent but middling football instincts.
"There’s no question that DRC has great ability," Broncos head coach John Fox said at the owners meetings a few days after the deal was made. "It’s our job to get the most of it out of him, just like anybody that had him before. We’ll see how that goes, how hard he’s willing to work and adapt to what we’re teaching him.”
It also helps that he's got an ultimate mentor in all-time great cornerback Champ Bailey. The 14-year veteran was exposed in coverage when the Broncos lost to the Baltimore Ravens, but he did have a good overall season, and he's forgotten more about pass coverage than most cornerbacks will ever know. He's ready and willing to take Rodgers-Cromartie under his wing, and that could be the X-factor.
“We got another good player," Bailey said of his new teammate in April. "He can help us win games. I know what he’s capable of in talking to some of his old coaches and teammates. The guy is a special talent. So I look for him to do good things here.”
Fox likes what he's seen so far.
“I [evaluated] him coming out [of college]," Fox concluded in June. "He’s a tremendous athlete. He’s on his third team now with Arizona and Philly being the prior teams. But he’s got tremendous ability and I’ve really liked what I’ve seen from him so far both on and off the field ... I think with everybody, it takes time. It’s a very competitive game played by competitive people. I can only speak for what little time we’ve had him here at the Broncos, but I like the way he’s hungry and I like the way he’s gone about his business.”
And maybe that's all it takes. A new and better scheme, with veteran help, and coaches who will tell him what he needs to do in order to get better, could unleash one of the more intriguing pass defenders in the NFL.