The Bengals enter the 2015 season desperately seeking a playoff win. The fates of head coach Marvin Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton may depend on it.
While Lewis and/or Dalton usually receive the lion's share of the blame for four straight one-and-done playoff exits, Lewis wasn't happy with his defense following last season's 26-10 loss in Indianapolis. The defense, which amassed a league-low 20 sacks, has reloaded up front with the returns of Michael Johnson and Pat Sims, and Geno Atikins looking more like his former self. The signing of A.J. Hawk will help the depth at linebacker if Vontaze Burfict is slow to return from microfracture knee surgery. Veteran corner Terence Newman is now in Minnesota, but the rise of two former No. 1 picks in the secondary will be more than enough to replace him. Dre Kirkpatrick made a big splash with two interceptions of Peyton Manning on Monday Night Football last December. He'll likely step into a starting role this year, but the sleeper in the secondary is Darqueze Dennard.
Dennard was the 24th overall selection in 2014 out of Michigan State, where he was a unanimous first-team All-American, Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year, and Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation's best defensive back. He played just 77 snaps his rookie season, forced to watch and learn behind four fellow first-round corners (Newman, Kirkpatrick, Adam Jones, Leon Hall). Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said earlier this offseason that he regrets not playing Dennard more, but Lewis thinks the decision is already paying off as Dennard was all over the field during last month's minicamp.
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"We didn't have to throw Darqueze in the fire," Lewis told Bengals.com last month. "He got a chance to learn behind some great pros and we're reaping the benefit now."
Dennard may begin the season as the team's fourth corner, but you can bet he won't finish the season there. There is already talk of playing Hall at safety and Jones' playing time may be reduced as he shoulders more of the load as a returner. Newman's departure alone leaves 883 snaps for the taking.
Dennard smells blood in the water and is confident that he'll find himself a spot in the starting lineup sooner than later.
"It's OK that he hasn't played yet," said defensive backs coach Vance Joseph. "Because he's going to be a great player in the future."