BY RON MUSSELMAN
Former Michigan State All-American Darqueze Dennard is a physical cornerback, one who can match up well with a team’s top wide receiver.
He is considered by many to be the top corner in the NFL draft, ranking slightly ahead of Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert.
If Dennard still is on the board when the Pittsburgh Steelers make the 15th overall pick in the first round of the NFL draft Thursday, there’s a good chance they could call his name.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has Dennard and Gilbert, who has added value as a kick returner, ranked as the 14th and 15th best players, respectively.
“I think the ideal pick if you’re the Steelers is Darqueze Dennard,” Kiper said. “He’s a Steeler. Rough, tough, aggressive football player, plays with a chip on his shoulder, very good in coverage, plays faster than he timed.
“Just a whale of a football player.”
Dennard, 5-foot-11, 199 pounds, captured the Jim Thorpe Award this past year as the country’s top defensive back and was a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award as the top defensive player.
He managed 62 tackles, four interceptions and 10 pass breakups as a senior, when he was named team MVP. Dennard finished his four-year career with 10 interceptions, 20 pass breakups and 167 tackles in 44 games, 40 of those as a starter.
“We had an aggressive style of play,” Dennard said. “(Defensive coordinator Pat) Narduzzi had a go-get-him attitude and me and the other corners were all put on islands.”
Not only was Dennard an aggressive pass defender, he also helped contain the run as the Spartans went 13-1 and were victorious in the Rose Bowl. The Spartans registered 42 wins overall in Dennard’s four seasons.
Dennard realizes he won’t be able to use his hands as often against receivers in the NFL as he did in college.
“I think I will transition well,” Dennard said. “In the college game, you are allowed to do that. It’s in the rules, so I’m going to play to the rules.
“I know in the NFL it’s a 5-yard radius. I can run with receivers and I can go get the ball. I don’t need to be that aggressive and still play good ball.
“A lot of people see me as just a man-to-man corner, but I can do everything else. I know how to play zone. I know how to play man-off. I know how to do other things as well. There’s really not a scheme that doesn’t fit me. I’m a versatile player.”
Dennard also visited the Steelers’ South Side practice facility in early April.
Gilbert, 6-0, 200, has outstanding speed, running a 4.37-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine to Dennard’s 4.51 and the 4.49 of Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller 4.49, whom the Steelers also like.
Gilbert returned two of his 12 career interceptions for touchdowns in college and took six kickoffs to the end zone.
“I think I’m the best corner in the draft.” Gilbert said. “I wouldn’t to be in the position I am if I wasn’t. I’m not going to let anyone take that from me.
“I think I’m a dangerous return man with the ball in my hands and on an interception there is always a possibility for me to take it back to the house.”
Pittsburgh’s other pressing need is at wide receiver.
Although Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown is coming off a career year, the Steelers lost two of their top three receivers from 2013 – Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery - through free agency. Sanders and Cotchery combined for 113 catches, 1,342 yards and 16 touchdowns last season.
The Steelers signed veterans Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey in the offseason. They are hoping Markus Wheaton, last year’s third-round pick, can avoid the injuries that limited him as a rookie.
Potential first-round picks for Pittsburgh include Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, LSU’s Odell Beckham and Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin.
“This is the best wide receiver draft I’ve seen in years,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said.
Follow Ron Musselman on Twitter at @ronmusselman8