'Impressive' Dennard readies for first game

CINCINNATI -- Tuesday's late-morning practice was barely one minute old when rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard was engulfed by a media crush.

As one of the first young Cincinnati Bengals out of the post-practice huddle, Dennard was ripe for the reporters' picking. With his first 11 training camp workouts officially behind him, the interested parties were curious to get his thoughts entering the most important game of his young professional career.

"That first game is important for a rookie," Dennard said.

Indeed it is. First games are all about getting comfortable with the speed of the game at its most elite level. They also are about beginning to learn officials and their tendencies, and to start charting which coverage techniques work best against which receivers.

As important as Dennard's first action in Thursday night's preseason opener against the Kansas City Chiefs might be, he really shouldn't feel any pressure. Before he even boarded the plane for Kansas City, Dennard already was held in high regard by his head coach -- the man who has the final say on any playing time he might earn.

"Darqueze Dennard, in my eyes, has been very impressive thus far," Marvin Lewis said in Cincinnati just last week.

He reiterated that belief Thursday morning when chatting with Bengals radio play-by-play announcer Dan Hoard at the team hotel in Kansas City. Hours before a preview show advancing the 8 p.m. ET kickoff, Lewis told Hoard that Dennard was "the best rookie corner I've seen," according to a tweet Hoard posted.

It's not hard to believe. Although the transition to the NFL continues for the first-year corner out of Michigan State, Dennard has looked like he belonged from the day he arrived in Cincinnati. He has taken the advice he has been given and built upon it. He has looked sharp in coverage during the open practices, and even better at jumping routes and deflecting or intercepting passes when they have come his direction.

Dennard's play so far has peaked 12-year veteran Terence Newman's optimism.

"If he stays on this path, the sky's the limit for him," Newman said of Dennard. "I've seen a lot of DBs come and go. And I've seen a lot of them come in [from college] and they've had good press technique."

But few like Dennard.

Before he was selected 24th overall, the 2013 Thorpe Award winner had been praised around the draft community for his ability to go everywhere on the field that his receiver went. If his receiver put on a double move, Dennard was known to stay right on his hip, barely biting on the fake. If the receiver ran all the way across the field without drawing a throw, Dennard was right in his face for every step. His man-press cover skills were his most touted playing trait, and a large reason why he was coveted so early in the draft.

"I was told that one of his inadequacies was possibly playing the ball down the field," Lewis said. "And sometimes I think college corners get knocked for that, particularly if they were a physical player in college. But one of the things that’s impressed me so much is his ability to track and play the football on vertical throws.

"If you want to be a great corner at this level, you have to have those capabilities, and he’s shown those thus far.”

Dennard was taken aback last week when he heard his teammates and coaches were proud of his progress so far. He anticipated growing pains this year and has been surprised to hear that the people in charge of his playing time haven't noticed many of them. When he does need something corrected, he usually fixes it on the second try, Lewis said. Occasional discussions with veteran cornerbacks like Newman, Adam Jones and Leon Hall have helped.

"Having those guys around me and listening to them and to hear their rookie stories and how they came about, just doing that, I'm already putting it in my mind just to expect the worst," Dennard said. "That allows me to be prepared for anything I have to go through."

If Dennard really has reservations about his rookie season, he hasn't voiced them, Newman said.

"He doesn't have many questions, so when he asks you a question, sometimes it's like, 'Oh wow, he's really asking a question?'" Newman said. "But that's what I like about him. He doesn't seem like he's too big to say he doesn't understand what's going on."

The rookie also isn't too big to shirk a compliment. When told by a reporter last week that Lewis said in a news conference he was impressed by his play, Dennard smiled and paused before responding.

"Really? That's my first time hearing that," Dennard said, adding, "I'm honored. I'm just honored he even said that about me. But I've just got to continue to get better, as always, and find my niche to help the team win."

It's still a long camp, but the early returns on this first-round investment seem to be paying off for Cincinnati.