FOXBORO, Mass. — Injury-prone is a term thrown around a little too frequently, and oftentimes out of context when it comes to athletes. NFL players are slapped with the label more often than those in other sports, mainly because of the physicality of the game as well as the frequency and severity of their injuries.
Entering just his third NFL season, Patriots cornerback Ras-I Dowling has already been branded with the unfortunate and well-deserved tag. But, as he enters something of a make-or-break year in New England, the oft-injured cornerback might also be the Patriots’ best hope at improving their pass defense.
Dowling, 25, entered his rookie season as a starter on the outside and was expected to bolster the Patriots’ suspect secondary. He lasted just two games before rupturing a tendon in his leg and finding his way onto the injured reserved list. It was more of the same in Year 2. Just as he finagled a bigger role in the defensive rotation, he suffered a torn quadriceps, yet again ending his season.
Two seasons in and Dowling has missed more than twice as many games (23) as he has played in (nine) for the Patriots. That might be commonplace for most young players, considering it takes time to work their way into the lineup, but not for a second-round pick and definitely not for one with as much skill and promise as Dowling.
An impact player and four-year starter at Virginia, Dowling has the ideal size (6-foot-1, 210 pounds), speed (4.46-second 40-yard dash at the 2011 combine) and ball skills to be a shutdown corner in the NFL. Even with an abundance of talent in the secondary already, the Patriots’ best cornerback tandem (granted, at this far-too-early juncture) would seem to be Aqib Talib and Dowling, from a purely technical standpoint.
Kyle Arrington manned the first team with Talib to open OTAs while Alfonzo Dennard and Dowling manned the second unit — take that as you will. They all looked terrific — add as much salt as necessary, given the lack of pads and contact — in their first run-through of the offseason, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Dowling and Dennard get some first-team reps of their own in the weeks to come.
From a pure spectator standpoint, Dowling looked like the best of the bunch. He appeared crisp in his backpedal, changed direction with supreme fluidity and even broke up a few of Tom Brady‘s passes along the sideline. Talib was working hard out on the corner, and both Dennard and Arrington looked solid in their reps, but, for my money at least, Dowling appeared to be the best player out on the corner.
Now, that’s not to say he will be a starter come Week 1, but, aside from Talib manning up on one side, nothing is firmly set in the Patriots’ secondary, especially at cornerback. So, there’s no counting him out either.
Sure, Arrington was the one lining up opposite Talib during the first few days of OTAs, and his fat new contract might stake him at least a claim in the starting job, but he still seems better suited in the slot. Dennard also has a viable claim to the job, considering the secondary seemed to excel during the six games he started at the end of 2012, but the second-year slump might be lurking around the corner. There’s always the outside chance that Devin McCourty moves back to the corner — unlikely — or that rookie Logan Ryan establishes himself as a starter during camp, but really anything could happen between now and then.
It’s way too early to start predicting starting lineups, but, for now at least, Dowling seems like the right choice on the outside. That is, if he can stay healthy. And that’s a big “if.”
Photo via Facebook/Ras-I Dowling