The Better CB Prospect: Justin Gilbert Vs. Darqueze Dennard
By Bill Lund
The position of cornerback has become such a valued commodity in the NFL; in some defenses, it is of greater value than a good pass rusher. This year’s draft is loaded with talented cornerbacks, but the two that have separated themselves from the pack are Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State and Darqueze Dennard or Michigan State.
Each corner differs in his style of play, but both are equally capable of making a quarterback think twice about throwing a ball their way. We will look at these two lockdown artists and determine who is the best cornerback prospect in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
Dennard is good sized (5-foot-11, 197 pounds) with decent speed and quick feet. His ability to diagnose a route and transition and break on routes is elite He shows good ball skills and awareness of when to look back on throws. In zone coverage, he is excellent at closing on receivers with the ball in flight. He is fluid in his transition from his backpedal to sprint as well as breaking back on short routes. In man schemes, he is at his best when pressing, utilizing his strength and ability to punch and reroute receivers at the line of scrimmage. Playing off-man, he shows some weakness, losing leverage due to a lack of top-end closing speed. Dennard is at his best in zone coverage where he utilize his instincts and closing ability to make plays.
A physical tackler, Dennard is solid in the run game, setting the edge of the defense or making the play when needed. He has shown the versatility to play on the slot receiver, and he can be employed as a blitzer off the edge, a la Charles Woodson.
Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
Gilbert (6-0, 200) has elite speed, agility and footwork. He displays fluidity when he moves and a burst to run with anyone he is matched up with. Gilbert shows strong instincts in recognizing routes and when closing, even when beat, he has a burst that can close the distance on anyone that gets by. Gilbert’s closing speed allows him the ability to make plays on balls while in flight, though he shows inconsistency in catching the ball when presented with opportunities. Gilbert is at his best playing man coverage. Whether it is press or off-man, Gilbert has the footwork to transition out of breaks and maintain tight coverage on any route. His range in playing zone coverage and ability to cover a lot of ground when the ball is in flight makes it difficult to throw in his area. Not a physically dominating corner, Gilbert relies on his athletic ability to make plays.
Gilbert is an average tackler in run support; he is willing, but tends to shoulder tackle rather than wrap up. He also is not great at escaping stalk block by wide receivers. Gilbert also can excel as a returner.
Who is the best?
Gilbert athletically is superior to Dennard; his speed and fluidity remind me of Darrelle Revis. Gilbert's ability to man up on anyone and take them out of a game is the best in the draft. Dennard is a corner who is more similar to Richard Sherman, with his physical play and his instincts in zone coverage making him lethal when the ball is in the air. The best corner in the draft may really come down to being the best fit for a particular defensive system. Gilbert would fit in an aggressive blitzing style that a team like the Packers or the Saints, who utilize man coverages predominately. Dennard would excel in a Bears or Seahawks style defense, where more zone coverages are employed and instincts are a premium.
If a decision must be made, I would lean towards selecting Darqueze Dennard first, because he has the versatility to be utilized as a blitzer or in coverage and has better skills in the run game, making him, in my opinion, the better overall player.