Signing a player like Darqueze Dennard is the type of move a team with aspirations to contend makes.
Adding a veteran of his caliber doesn't greatly change the dynamics of a team, but teams like the New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers have recently reached Super Bowls thanks to similar acquisitions. For the Atlanta Falcons, the signing of Darqueze Dennard does three important things.
First, it makes Atlanta's cornerback group deeper. The Falcons would have been in some trouble if a starting corner, particularly at the nickel corner spot, was lost for a significant part of the season. Now, there is a bit more of a cushion. Second, and this also plays into the first point, Dennard adds more versatility to an already versatile defense. He can play both inside and outside in the secondary, and Atlanta needed another corner capable of playing in the slot as, prior to the move, Kendall Sheffield was the only player to have previously shown he could successfully play that spot on Sundays. Finally, he provides veteran leadership for a mostly young room of corners. Atlanta is already relying on Isaiah Oliver to ratchet his game up a notch and A.J. Terrell to acclimate to NFL speed on the fly, it shouldn't have to worry about Dennard looking in over his head.
"He's come in and he hasn't missed an assignment at all; he is extremely smart," Falcons secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. said. "He has the ability to connect to people. He can play outside or inside, and his intelligence gives him the opportunity to play outside and inside because you can do multiple things with him."
Despite the talk of Dennard playing both outside and inside, the Falcons lined him up at slot corner throughout training camp. Furthermore, Dennard worked with the starting unit in camp, signaling that the team views him as more than just a depth addition. Atlanta believes he's talented enough to help the secondary immediately.
If that is indeed the Falcons' intention for when the season kicks off, it would mean second-year corner Kendall Sheffield is the cornerback room's sixth man, so to speak. Like Dennard, Sheffield has some versatility in his game and played outside corner as a rookie when Desmond Trufant suffered an injury early in the year before moving into the slot once Trufant was healthy.
Should Dennard get hurt or start the season poorly, the Falcons could easily turn to Sheffield, whom they think highly of. If either of those scenarios occurs with the two outside corners, Atlanta could plug Sheffield in on the outside or put him in the slot and slide Dennard to the outside. In any case, the Falcons seem to have four starting-caliber corners for three spots. That's a good problem to have, and it's because of the addition of Dennard.
"I just think I'm an overall total DB," Dennard said. "I can play outside, inside. I can play the ball, I can also come up and tackle. So, I'm a well-rounded DB. I just want to be able to help the team and try to show really the league that I'm still that same player as when I came out [of the draft]."
In a clear attempt to improve this facet of the team, the Falcons shook things up in the secondary this offseason. Not only did they sign Dennard but the team also drafted Terrell with the 16th-overall pick and hired Whitt to coach the secondary.
Based on how the unit looked in training camp, those moves appear to have paid off. There have been no signs of the glaring communication errors that haunted Atlanta early in the 2019 season, and the cornerbacks seem more confident and aggressive than they have previously.
Whitt was a walk-on wide receiver at Auburn and coached wide receivers for one season at The Citadel, so he's able to share some insights with Atlanta's defensive backs about what the offense wants to accomplish and different approaches a receiver might have. Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, who previously coached wide receivers in Atlanta but has a history with defensive backs, provides the same type of knowledge, and it helped the secondary greatly improve after the bye week in 2019.
Dennard can look upon the Falcons' situation with fresh eyes, and the coaches' ability to teach from two different perspectives stood out.
"Those guys are very energetic, love football and are very intelligent – both great minds," Dennard said. "They talk from different sides, being from the offensive side, so they see it from different angles which is really good. I haven't had that since Vance Joseph in Cincinnati. That there, alone, being able to talk to DBs and the defense from the offensive perspective or how offenses will try to attack your weak spots is perfect."
But Morris and Whitt can only prepare their players for what they might see on Sundays. Once on the field, the players must be able to compete in what is a receiver-loaded NFC South.
Fortunately for Atlanta's defensive backs, the Falcons have some pretty good receivers of their own to throw at them in practice. Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley are poised to establish themselves as one of the top receiver duos in the NFL this season, and they can play all over the field, even in the slot. But it's third-year receiver Russell Gage, a player who might have a true breakout year in 2020, who most often lines up across from Dennard.
For that reason, there may not be another player better equipped to evaluate Dennard as a defensive back and a teammate.
"Great player, man, he's a great player," Gage said. "We always chat it up after a route or after a rep and talk about things that he saw, things that were giveaways, things I could do better, things he could do better. He's a great player. A lot of information, and I'm excited to be playing with him. I just know that's another person that's going to help add to my toolbox and make me a better player."
Dennard, a native of Dry Branch, Ga., began his NFL career as a first-round pick for the Cincinnati Bengals, where he played for six seasons. The 28-year-old corner was primarily a reserve during his first three seasons, but he began to factor into the starting mix in his fourth year. After missing the first half of the 2019 season due to a knee injury, Dennard returned to start five games down the stretch in his final year with Cincinnati.
Now, Dennard comes back to his home state ready to prove that he was worthy of his first-round selection. The Falcons appear set to give him that chance, and in doing so have turned one of their biggest problem areas from last season into a deeper, more experienced and versatile group.
"It's just me trusting the man above. He had a plan for me, and his plan was for me to come back home to Georgia and to play with the Falcons, which I'm super excited for. I'm grateful and humble for the opportunity."