Updated: 5-9-14, 12:30 a.m.
Barely had the Bengals registered their selection of Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard in the first round of Thursday night's draft when one of their assistant coaches got a text from old friend Mike Zimmer.
Zimmer, the Bengals old defensive coordinator now the head coach of the Vikings, is a secondary coach at heart and he admired Dennard so much during the scouting process that his text said, "He's just like Leon."
That is high praise from Zimmer because he's talking about the glue of the Bengals secondary, eight-year-veteran cornerback Leon Hall. But his successor as coordinator, Paul Guenther, and new cornerbacks coach Vance Joseph, beat him to the punch. After watching Dennard's campus workout in East Lansing, Mich., a few weeks back they looked at each other and said, "He's Leon."
"He's a solid player. He's smart, he's physical, he's a competitor. He does things right," Joseph said. "In this league as a corner, if you're a technique-sound corner and you play smart, you can play a long time. There are guys that play that don't make a bunch of plays, but don't give up big plays and that's the key in this league. It's being consistently smart, be tough and competitive and he's that."
The Bengals draft room broke out into relieved smiles and fist pumps when the Chiefs tabbed Auburn defensive end Dee Ford at No. 23. With Dennard rated the No. 2 corner all draft season, most mocks had the 5-11, 199-pound Dennard long gone by No. 24. The Bengals, looking to give their veteran secondary a shot of youth, were stunned that a guy they rated in the top ten of their overall board was still clinging.
"That's stressful stuff, guys," said a flushed Guenther to start off his news conference.
NFL Network's Mike Mayock, Guenther's good friend from Philly, knew Guenther got his man.
"Best pure man-to-man cover guy in this draft," Mayock said.
Dennard could only agree when asked to break down his skills for the Cincinnati media in a conference call.
"My strength is being a shutdown corner. I can take a receiver out of the game," Dennard said. " I can press, I can blitz, play inside or outside, I'm very smart, have great ball skills — I don't think I have any weaknesses, to be honest. People say that I can't play off coverage, but there have been times I've proven that I can." Dennard is the classic new breed of Bengals draft pick because he racked up a lot of production and experience starting three seasons in a big league and was named the Thorpe Award winner as the nation's best defensive back while serving as a captain. His 4.44-second 40-yard dash at the combine quelled the naysayers about his speed.
"Has his hands all over the receiver in press cover two," according to Ourlads Scouting Services. "A heady corner."
And what Joseph calls Dennard's "no-nonsense,' demeanor should fit right in with the style of Hall's blue-collar secondary.
"We really feel good about him, the style of play that he has demonstrated at Michigan State. Secondly, the quality he shows as a person and how he carries himself," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "He's been a leader there, so he fits the mold we were looking for."
Like Hall, the Bengals' No. 1 pick in 2007 with the 18th pick out of Michigan, Dennard chose to stay in his hometown with family and friends instead of being feted in New York City. About 50 family members and friends waited for the call at the Marriott Courtyard in Macon, Ga. On Wednesday in tiny Jeffersonville, Ga., he threw a free cookout for kids and anybody else who wanted to come. He's not sure how many kids came out.
"A lot,' he said. "I signed autographs for about two hours."
"I wanted to be around people who helped me get here."
With his maturity already on display in the conference call with the Cincinnati media late Thursday night, the 22-year-old Dennard already showed an NFL maturity in his style of man-to-man play.
"In their system he plays up close to the receiver almost every play and their safety is about eight yards off the ball," Guenther said. "He literally had no help and teams that played against Michigan State knew this guy is out there on an island one-on-one, and he was tremendous.
"He's an all-football kind of guy. He's not real flashy, but he'll do the dirty work. He'll tackle; he'll play special teams when he needs to. He's the guy in this draft that fit us."
After not taking a first-round cornerback in the first 38 years of their existence, the Bengals made Dennard the fourth cornerback taken in the first round in the last nine years. Like Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick from two years ago, he won't be asked to start right away.
But he's got a chance.
"He's in the mix. Why not?" asked Joseph. "He's a first-round pick."
He could start off in the slot on passing downs, which, of course, is where Hall plays. With Hall, 29, coming off his second torn Achilles in three years and Terence Newman and Adam Jones turning 36 and 31, respectively during the first month of the season, the Bengals were clearly preparing to get younger at cornerback.
Since 2006, the Bengals have taken Kirkpatrick (17th), Hall and Johnathan Joseph (24th in 2006) in the first round. Hall and Newman (knee) are the projected starters coming off season-ending injuries and Jones is the third corner. Kirkpatrick, plagued by injuries as a rookie and lack of consistency last season, is looking for his break-out year.
Dennard also becomes the sixth first-rounder in the Bengals secondary, joining Newman, Hall, Jones, Kirkpatrick, and safety Reggie Nelson.
More Hall karma: The last time the Bengals picked No. 24, they selected cornerback Johnathan Joseph, Hall's running mate for Zimmer's No. 4 defense that carved out the 2009 AFC North title. When Joseph went to Houston in 2011 and made the Pro Bowl, Vance Joseph was his secondary coach with the Texans.