NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was considered a second or third-round talent after concluding an impressive collegiate career with the Nebraska Cornhuskers, but ultimately slipped to the seventh round due to a confluence of factors, including questions about his speed, an underwhelming showing at last year’s Senior Bowl, and, most importantly, an April arrest for allegedly assaulting a police officer, an ongoing case which will go to the jury on Tuesday. If convicted, Dennard faces up to five years in prison. This article will examine the potential ramifications of a Dennard conviction.
New England’s selection of Dennard quickly proved valuable last season. Despite missing the Patriots’ first four contests with a hamstring injury and six games overall, Dennard was one of New England’s most consistent defensive backs at a very affordable $390,000 salary. Making seven starts on the outside, Dennard totaled 35 tackles, three interceptions, and seven passes defensed on the season.
He proved to be a reasonably effective tackler, missing just six tackles on the year, but what stood out the most was how quickly he adapted to the NFL, making a seamless transition thanks to his aggressiveness, his physicality, and his confidence. In total, Dennard allowed completions on just 36/72 attempts, a 50% rate, for 516 yards and five touchdowns, finishing with a quarterback rating against of 79.4.
Dennard’s perceived lack of speed was not a major factor last season; disguised well by his instincts and by his press coverage. A few of Dennard’s completions resulted in gains of over twenty yards, but only one pass went for over thirty (a touchdown catch allowed vs. San Francisco.) By the end of the year, he was easily one of New England’s most consistent performers in the secondary.
Should Dennard face either prison time or a suspension from the NFL, the Patriots may be forced to enter next season even thinner than anticipated in the defensive backfield, especially if free agents such as Aqib Talib and/or Kyle Arrington are not retained. As of now, the only other cornerbacks on New England’s roster are 2011 second-round pick Ras-I Dowling, who has played in just nine games through his first two seasons, and Malcolm Williams, considered more of a special teams contributor than a coverage option.
The Patriots are almost certain to add to that stable of cornerbacks through free agency and/or April’s NFL Draft, but New England has struggled in recent years to either evaluate or develop cornerbacks selected in the draft, including second-round picks such as Dowling, Terence Wheatley, and Darius Butler, so relying on rookies for immediate production may prove costly to a team in contention for a Super Bowl title.
Any free agent signings would likely also be forced to adapt to New England’s coverage shells, which have given some players difficulty in the past; chemistry in the secondary could also prove to be an issue. That could necessitate Devin McCourty playing on the outside while Dennard is out, which, as the roster currently stands, would shift starting responsibilities to the comparatively less efficient safety combination of Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson.
Of course, it’s possible that Dennard could be found not guilty and presumably escape league discipline, but the Patriots should nonetheless have a contingency plan in case they are forced to account for the absence of their starting right cornerback for some or all of the 2013 season.