The Chicago Bears this week reduced the team's number of current free agents to 20 after re-signing CB Kelvin Hayden, C Roberto Garza, TE Dante Rosario, S Derrick Martin and C Taylor Boggs. Offensively, the Bears will return all 11 starters from last season. It's a group with a lot of potential next season, yet the defense is still a major work in progress.
The status of Charles Tillman is arguably highest on the club's list of concerns. Chicago has signed eight players since season's end, including cornerback Tim Jennings, and yet Tillman, a stalwart on defense since 2003, remains in limbo. With Lovie Smith taking over in Tampa Bay, it's easy to picture Tillman in a Buccaneers uniform next season.
If Tillman departs, Jennings would take over as the club's No. 1 cornerback. He's coming off two Pro Bowl campaigns but he's 30 years old. No matter how you slice it, the Bears need to find a young, long-term cornerback this offseason.
Looking at the draft, there are two surefire first-round cornerbacks: Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard. Gilbert posted the fastest 40 time of all the cornerbacks at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, which likely pushed him into the Top 10.
Dennard, though, should be available when it's GM Phil Emery's turn to pick at 14th overall. Could Dennard potentially replace Tillman as the Bears' lockdown corner of the future? Let's see what the game tape shows us.
Darqueze Dennard (5-11, 199)Arms: 30 ¼
40-Yard Dash: 4.51
Bench Press: 15
*Did not participate in any other combine drills.
Dennard is well built and has very good size. He excels in press coverage where he uses great physicality and athleticism in disrupting receivers at the line of scrimmage. He has arguably the most fluid hips of any defensive back in this year's class. He can turn and run in a flash, which makes up for his less-than-ideal straight-line speed. It also allows him to change directions quickly and mirror wide receivers, particularly on double moves.
Dennard has great instincts and he's very good at finding the ball in the air, using his size and aggressive nature to create pass breakups. On film, you can tell he truly enjoys the challenge of playing press coverage and he brings intensity to the field.
Dennard relies on his physicality at the line of scrimmage and could struggle in the NFL if he's unable to lock up receivers at the snap. He's very adept at staying in the hip pocket of opposing wideouts but he doesn't possess the pure speed to keep up with some of the top pass catchers at the next level.
He's also very active with his hands when the ball is in the air and must improve his overall technique if he's going to avoid pass interference penalties. His aggressiveness is what makes him effective in press coverage, yet it could lead to some game-changing PI calls.
Dennard didn't play much zone coverage for the Spartans. When asked to zone up, he lacked awareness and was hesitant. He's a pure man corner. While he gives good effort against the run, he's a very inconsistent tackler.
In his collegiate career, Dennard dealt with numerous injuries, including two sports hernia surgeries, as well as injuries to his shoulder, ankle and knee. He's a red flag as far as health.
In 2013, Dennard was a consensus All-American and won the Jim Thorpe Award, given annually to the nation's top cornerback. He's a two-time First-Team All-Big Ten honoree and a three-year starter.
Dennard is as polished a cornerback as there is in this year's draft. On film, he smothered wide receivers to the point where opposing teams just stopped throwing at him. His aggressive style is very reminiscent of Seattle's Richard Sherman.
As Tillman's replacement, Dennard could be very attractive to the Bears. He's the type of shutdown corner that can come in and start from Day 1. Yet his extensive injury history, as well as his reliance on hand usage down the field, makes him a risk for Emery at 14th overall. Throw in Dennard's lack of top-end speed, as well as a deep crop of cornerbacks in this year's draft, and the Bears might be better off addressing the defensive line in Round 1.
Dennard is going to be a very good man corner in the NFL and if the Bears draft him at 14, they'll get a quality player who will have an impact in coverage from Day 1.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is entering his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.