While most of the attention is still focused towards the Arizona Cardinals offense, it’s been the defense that catapulted the team to their first Super Bowl in franchise history. The emergence of rookie CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has helped transform the Cardinals’ defense into a formidable unit, particularly in the secondary. Can DRC become the next “Prime Time”? Brad Wilbricht explains.
This time last year, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was a relative unknown and on the cusp of exploding onto the NFL radar. His performance in the Senior Bowl was the start of a tremendous surge up the draft charts. By the time the scouting combine was over, Rodgers-Cromartie had emerged as surefire first-round pick.
Of the top cornerbacks selected in last year’s draft, DRC was able to make the biggest impact for his new team. Leodis McKelvin was the first cornerback off the board, selected by the Buffalo Bills with the 11th overall selection. McKelvin contributed in the secondary with two interceptions and was a standout special teams player. He finished with 1,494 return yards and one touchdown.
After Rodgers-Cromartie was acquired by Arizona with the 16th overall pick, Aqib Talib was selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at pick No. 21. He fit in nicely to the Tampa 2 defense, intercepting four passes but managed only 23 tackles.
Following Talib was Mike Jenkins who was selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 28th pick. Despite several injuries in the Dallas secondary and the debacle with Adam “Pacman” Jones, Jenkins failed to turn into a regular contributor. He played sparingly throughout the season and finished with 19 tackles and one interception.
Back to Rodgers-Cromartie, whose emergence in the Cardinals’ secondary helped Arizona secure its first Super Bowl berth in franchise history. He developed into a full-time starter by midseason and responded by intercepting four passes over the final seven games of the year. Furthermore, he already has two interceptions in the postseason and has been an integral part of a Cardinals defense that’s forced 12 turnovers in three playoff games.
If DRC continues to refine his skill set, he could enter “Prime Time” status sooner than expected. He exhibits the ball skills, intangibles and speed that made Deion Sanders arguably the best cover corner ever to play the game.
Sanders also got off to a fast start in the NFL, picking off five passes in his rookie season with the Atlanta Falcons. Over the course of his 14-year career, Sanders racked up 53 interceptions, returning nine for touchdowns. He added nine more touchdowns on special teams while averaging 10.4 yards per punt return and 22.7 yards on kick returns.
In addition to defense, Rodgers-Cromartie proved his versatility by spending limited time at wide receiver. As he becomes more acclimated on defense, look for him to receive more reps with the offensive unit.
"Neon Deion” was initially used sparingly as a wideout but finally got an extended opportunity during the 1996 season in Dallas when he reeled in 36 passes for 475 yards. Don’t be surprised if Rodgers-Cromartie evolves into a similar weapon. Given Arizona’s excellent group of wide receivers, he hasn’t been needed up to this point.
While there are many similarities between DRC and Sanders, they do have differences. Rodgers-Cromartie has already displayed a more physical aspect to his game than Sanders. His ability to jam opposing receivers at the line of scrimmage and contribute in run support was unexpected given his rather slender frame. However, Rodgers-Cromartie has dispelled one of two major concerns coming out of the college ranks.
The other negative aspect regarding DRC was his jump from tiny Tennessee St. to the elite level of the NFL. Rodgers-Cromartie benefited from a crash course in mini camp and training camp, facing off against one of the best wide receiving corps in the league. Lining up against Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston rapidly prepared him for the challenges ahead.
In the years to come, Rodgers-Cromartie should become even better with experience and increased upper-body strength. If he’s able to develop into a reliable component in run defense, DRC could even surpass the precedent set by Sanders.
“Prime Time” has reached out to numerous players throughout the years, most of them explosive and flashy like the former eight-time Pro Bowler. His future protégé may be based in the desert and is ready to take center stage in Sanders' home state of Florida. Now as a chief analyst for the NFL Network, you can bet that Deion will be watching closely.
Questions or comments? Contact Brad Wilbricht at firstname.lastname@example.org