Since 2003, the Philadelphia Eagles have been looking for the next Troy Vincent at the cornerback position. Asante Samuel‘s nine interceptions in 2009 were reminiscent of Vincent. Samuel soon regressed and the Eagles were forced to continue their search for a game-changing cornerback. The Eagles thought they had found their next shutdown corner in Nnamdi Asomugha, but he was the most disappointing free agent signing in team history.
Enter Carey Williams, the Eagles’ highest profile free agent of 2013. Williams struggled throughout last season and finished the year as the No. 80-ranked corner on Pro Football Focus. Furthermore, his -7.9 grade in pass coverage was 5th from the bottom amongst full-time starting cornerbacks. And if it wasn’t for an epic blizzard holding down Calvin Johnson‘s production in the Eagles’ December matchup with the Detroit Lions, his grade would have been even lower. No individual was more responsible than Williams for the Eagles’ ranking No. 25 in pass defense efficiency per Football Outsiders.
One positive development in the Eagles’s secondary was the emergence of Brandon Boykin. By making numerous big plays late in the year, he established himself as the NFL’s best slot corner and graded out No. 1 amongst all corners in pass coverage per Pro Football Focus. However, at 5-foot-9, Boykin struggles against the run and rarely matches up with the opponent’s primary receiving option. Given his size, he fits best playing inside or as a complementary outside cornerback.
For the Eagles’ defensive unit to have a true breakthrough in 2014, the team must upgrade the outside cornerback position. With the No. 22 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, the Eagles should select senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard out of Michigan State University.
At 5-foot-11, Dennard is not as tall as Richard Sherman, but at 197 pounds, he is thicker. His dimensions compare most closely to Joe Haden, the Cleveland Browns‘ All Pro corner. Those additional pounds on his frame are pure muscle and Dennard frequently uses it to bully opposing receivers. Indeed, few NFL cornerbacks are as strong and sturdy as Dennard. His uncharacteristic strength, combined with next-level short area quickness, provides Dennard with the necessary foundation to evolve into a dominant run defender.
Beyond his size, Dennard has the athleticism and coverage ability to be the Eagles’ franchise building block at corner, filling the void left by Vincent and Samuel. Dennard is fast enough to run with NFL-caliber wide receivers, and he has shown great instincts when the ball is in-flight as well as the natural hip fluidity that scouts obsess over.
Questions about Dennard’s tackling fundamentals and willingness to exert consistent effort will temper his draft stock, however, his experience and career productivity would make him a low risk pick for Philadelphia. As a key member of the Spartans’ defense over the past few seasons, he has earned a first team All-American Award, a Jim Thorpe Award, and two All-Big Ten Conference Awards. In 2013, he emerged as one of college football’s true shutdown corners as he routinely suffocated his opponents’ top target.
Dennard looks good in green. If a cornerback as decorated as Dennard was 6-foot-1 he would be a top-1o draft pick. Fortunately for Philadelphia, a couple question marks will likely push him down to the No. 22 overall pick and allow the Eagles to anoint him their shutdown corner of the future.