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Will Bengals CB Darqueze Dennard Fulfill His Potential?

Thus far, the former Thorpe Award winner hasn't played up to his first-round draft status, and he's coming off a serious shoulder injury.

Darqueze Dennard is expected to man a cornerback spot for the Bengals by the beginning of training camp following a full recovery from a serious shoulder injury that ended his 2015 season after 10 games.

Dennard tore both his labrum and rotator cuff Nov. 22 at Arizona while making his first NFL start. The Bengals said at the time that Dennard would need six months for a full recovery, and he's had no setbacks. Training camp begins more than two months after Dennard will be recovered from his injuries.

The hope is that he can quickly regain the form flashed in the second half of 2015 after getting off to a slow start to his NFL career. Thus far, Dennard has not played up to his draft status nor his college honors, included among them the 2013 Thorpe Award, given to the nation's top defensive back. Dennard totaled 10 interceptions in 40 starts at Michigan State, where he earned a reputation as one of college football's most physical cover men.

Though he lacked top-end speed, Dennard's explosive short-area athleticism and his playing style were seen to be good NFL fits as a pressing corner with the ability to disrupt routes. He was projected as a quality early-career starter, and was taken in the first round of the 2014 draft.

Dennard, however, has started one game in two Bengals seasons, and that was due to injury. He has come up with one interception, four passes defensed, one sack and 37 total tackles in 24 of a possible 32 games. He hasn't been able to move ahead of veteran cornerbacks Adam Jones and Leon Hall. He has remained behind fellow corner Dre Kirkpatrick, drafted two years ahead of Dennard and also taking a slow path to NFL success. Before he got hurt against the Cardinals,  Dennard was torched by John Brown for a touchdown.

Jones and Hall are due to become unrestricted free agents, as is starting safety Reggie Nelson. The hope is that the third-year Dennard will ascend from the No. 4 cornerback spot and play a role befitting a first-round draft pick. He will have to fight for a full-time job, with Kirkpatrick becoming a clear frontrunner for one corner spot. There's also a chance the Bengals select a cornerback in the first round of this year's draft and sign a free-agent.

Jones could be wooed away by either Miami or Cleveland, where former Bengals coaches now ply their craft. Jones has said that he prefers to stay in Cincinnati. Hall might be a better bet to return because of a much lower price tag. The Bengals' plan was for Kirkpatrick and Dennard to be the unquestioned starters at cornerback by this season, but it's no guarantee because of slow development, possible returnees and the potential for a free-agent find.

A fear on the part of some is that Dennard, the 24th overall pick in his draft, could be either injury-prone or too slow to develop. He left a rookie preseason game with a hip injury. He exited the Bengals' 2015 preseason opener with a groin injury. He was earning glowing reports in training camp, but couldn't beat out the aging Hall, who got the call in nickel packages during the season after being demoted to safety in deference to the gracefully aging Jones. Dennard played only 77 snaps as a rookie, so he has not had much on-field NFL exposure.

Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther reportedly remains high on Dennard, and said he should have played him more as a rookie. Head coach Marvin Lewis called Dennard the best rookie corner he's coached. But it's unclear if Lewis is enamored enough with the former Spartan to give him a clear path to a starting role in 2016. Much more, of course, will be known after the draft.

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