February 24, 2014 at 4:02 pm

NFL scouting combine

Lions could find corners too tempting to pass on early

Darqueze Dennard, left, from Michigan State and Justin Gilbert, right, of Oklahoma State are expected to be the first cornerbacks taken in the NFL draft. (Dale G. Young/Detroit News / Brett Deering/Getty I)

Indianapolis — Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard and Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert will probably be the first two cornerbacks taken in the May’s NFL draft.

And even though they’re battling to be the top cornerback, Gilbert said the two have become friends since meeting at the College Football Awards show in Orlando last December.

“He’s a pretty good guy,” Gilbert said of Dennard Sunday at the NFL combine. “He’s funny, always has me laughing. He calls me pretty boy and makes fun of me because I always take selfies on my phone.”

Gilbert, though, doesn’t have a nickname for Dennard.

“I’m a nice guy,” he said. “I don’t call him names.”

Few cornerbacks are drafted in the top 10 partly because it takes them longer to develop in the NFL, but Dennard and Gilbert have a chance to contribute immediately, according to NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock.

The Lions have more pressing needs like wide receiver and safety, but it could be difficult to pass on a shutdown cornerback with the No. 10 pick, especially considering their decade-long struggles in the secondary.

Gilbert had the better season statistically in 2013 with seven interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. He also thinks he’s the speedier of the two and said he’d be satisfied with a 40-yard dash time in the 4.2- or 4.3-second range. Titans running back Chris Johnson set the record of 4.24 seconds in 2008.

“I ran a 4.33 a couple of weeks ago, and that was just my first attempt. I’m usually faster on my second attempt so hopefully I can get down there.”

“I think (Dennard is) a pretty complete player. He’s not as fast as me. I can tell you that.”

Dennard had four interceptions last season for a Rose Bowl-winning Spartans team. And although he might not have Gilbert’s straight-line speed, Dennard is supposed to be better in press coverage, something NFL teams covet.

Dennard did not speak during media availability at the combine, which happens to some players because of the mass amount of testing done by teams.

Mayock said last week if Dennard runs a 4.4 he could become a top-10 pick, but he thinks both Dennard and Gilbert are locks to go in the top 20.

Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said he thinks the secondary needs to improve, but is confident veteran Chris Houston, who signed a five-year, $25 million deal last year, can bounce back after struggling in 2013.

Mayhew also said he likes the development of cornerbacks he drafted the last two years — Darius Slay, Bill Bentley, Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood.

The Lions ranked 23rd in pass defense last season, and Houston’s two interceptions led the cornerback group.

Although Gilbert and Dennard are the hot prospects right now, Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby was long considered the top prospect at the position. However, Roby struggled at the beginning of 2013, which he said Sunday stemmed from a lack of practice reps after he was suspended for the Buckeyes’ season opener.

Roby said he’s become friends with Gilbert and Dennard and talked to Dennard after the Big Ten championship.

“I think he’s a pretty solid corner,” Roby said of Dennard. “I got a chance to watch him a lot when our offense was on the field, and definitely being the type of guy I am I want to see the guys that are compared to me how good they are as well.

“And I think he’s a very good player.”

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com
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