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Darqueze Dennard has learned a lot about gratitude in his short NFL career.
Right now, the Bengals cornerback is most thankful for a chance to compete in Sunday’s opener at the New York Jets.
Dennard has suffered a rash of injuries since the Bengals selected him in the first round of the 2014 draft, most recently coming back from 2015 season-ending shoulder surgery only to sprain his ankle on the first day of contact in training camp Aug. 1.
He missed all four preseason games; however, he resumed practice Monday and continued his preparations with the team Wednesday in limited participation. Dennard could play an important role against a Jets offense that sends four receivers out wide for veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to target.
“It’s a blessing to be able to play the sport you love and to get paid to play at a high level and go out and compete every day,” Dennard said. “It’s a blessing. I’ve been out of football for a long time. I haven’t played a game in a long time, so I’m anxious for Sunday and we’ll see if I’ll be able to go out and compete.”
Dennard hasn’t experienced a full preseason. He suffered a hip injury in the second preseason game in 2014 and didn’t return until Week 2, after which he was limited mostly to special teams.
The 24-year-old from Michigan State was competing for a starting role last year in training camp before suffering a groin injury in the preseason opener and spent the early part of the season as the team’s No. 4 corner. He was making his first start in Game 10 at Arizona when he landed awkwardly on his right arm, tearing his labrum and rotator cuff, while trying to defend a touchdown pass.
“There was a time and point where I was down on myself a lot,” Dennard said. “I’m a hard critic of myself, and once I got the opportunity to play and I made a couple plays and started seeing a lot more reps of me playing, then I had it taken away from me. It just showed me I needed to be grateful and thankful for a lot of things because any given time it can be taken away from you.”
Dennard said he never missed games in college because of injury, so it was hard to see his playing time affected by setbacks. His family — particularly his grandmother, who sent him encouraging Bible verses – and teammates like Adam Jones helped keep his spirits up, and Dennard also has worked to improve his sleeping, eating and recovery habits.
Coming back without game preparation is just another challenge. After playing 18 snaps on defense in the preseason last year, he came in for 21 snaps off the bench against Oakland in Week 1.
“It’s really tough,” Dennard said. “I’m behind the 8-ball. A lot of guys are in shape. All the guys have had game experience, and those reps are very needed, especially for a young player like myself. Right now, I’m learning on the fly and basically doing all I can in practice to get in shape and get game-like reps and prepare for the season.”