Ras-I Dowling, Logan Ryan Provide Quality Depth for Patriots at Cornerback if Alfonzo Dennard Misses Time

Ras-I DowlingIf nothing else, Alfonzo Dennard‘s timing could use some work.

The Patriots cornerback was arrested on April 21, 2012, just five days before the 2012 NFL draft. Due to the charges (punching a police officer) and timing, he fell to the seventh round before the Patriots snatched him up.

His latest arrest came just as the world was finishing up talking about how Aaron Hernandez‘s arrest had tilted the moral compass of “The Patriot Way” (which, in this writer’s point of view, never existed in the first place). He was arrested on suspicion of DUI on Thursday morning. Even if nothing comes from the arrest, either on its own or from violating probation from the 2012 incident, it didn’t shine a positive light on the New England organization that had already taken a hit from Hernandez. Dennard will know on July 31 if he violated his probation.

If any part of the charges are true, Dennard could miss some time in 2013, either from serving jail time, getting suspended by the league or team or from getting cut, which is looking less likely as more time passes since the arrest. Not to trivialize the situation, but fortunately for the Patriots, they finally have quality depth at the position. So, while something like this is far from ideal, especially as the secondary was rounding into shape at the end of last season, it’s not exactly dire, either.

The worst-case scenario as far as depth at cornerback came in 2011, when things got downright silly. Devin McCourty and Ras-I Dowling began the season as the starters, but that didn’t last long. Six different Patriots started at cornerback that season (Kyle Arrington, Antwaun Molden, Nathan Jones, Leigh Bodden, McCourty and Dowling) and three more got playing time at the position (Sterling Moore, Philip Adams and Julian Edelman). Jones played 241 snaps spread over five games. And the Patriots made the Super Bowl that season.

The Patriots were in better shape in 2012, due to health and talent, but they still had five starters (McCourty, Arrington, Dennard, Aqib Talib and Marquice Cole) and two more received playing time (Moore, Dowling).

The goal would be to get back to just around five players receiving snaps at cornerback in a given season. They accomplished that in 2009 and 2010 and they certainly have the depth to do it again in 2012. That’s not to say the Patriots’ secondary was any good in 2009 and 2010, though. Darius Butler, Jonathan Wilhite and Tony Carter received important snaps in 2010 and Wilhite, Butler, Shawn Springs and Terrence Wheatley did in 2009.

With Talib, Dennard, Arrington, Dowling, Cole, Logan Ryan and even McCourty (if the team decided to move him back to cornerback, which he can do in a pinch) at the position, the team has the best crew of cornerbacks since the undefeated 2007 season. In fact, the starting combination of Talib and Dennard would be similar in playing styles to Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs that year.

Depending on how Bill Belichick feels about playing Arrington outside and Dowling’s health, either player could be the first man off the bench to play outside if Dennard misses time. Regardless, both would receive playing time, since Arrington would still play the slot when three or four cornerbacks are on the field.

If Dennard does miss time at any point in the season, Dowling’s health becomes a major storyline. The third-year corner missed all but two weeks of the 2011 season with a hip injury and all but seven weeks of the 2012 season with a quadriceps injury. He also missed time at Virginia with ankle, hamstring, knee and back injuries. He even hurt his hamstring running the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, which actually encapsulates his injury-prone NFL career perfectly, since he still ran a very impressive 4.40-second time.

Dowling’s injuries are frustrating because he’s so talented. Talib is a great player, but Dowling may be the best cornerback on the team when he’s actually healthy. He surprised everyone by starting out of the gate in 2011 as a rookie, and he looked damn good in doing so. He’s always impressive at practice and during the preseason, it’s just a matter of playing a full season.

If Dennard had to miss time to start the season and Dowling starts in his place and plays well, Dennard could have to claw his way back up the depth chart to take his role back. A starting secondary of Talib and Dowling could be imposing for opposing receivers due to their size.

I grow tired of talking about Dowling’s health, but it’s necessary whenever discussing his game. You can’t bring up the possibility of him playing major snaps without putting the injury caveat on the end. Otherwise, you wind up sounding naive.

Regardless of whether Dowling stays healthy or not, Belichick may still determine that Arrington is the man for the job in the base defense. Arrington’s better in the slot, but he’s still adept at playing outside. He has a tendency to get beat deep, and the team may have to shift to more zone coverages if he starts, but they’re well suited in doing so with McCourty back at safety. Arrington had seven interceptions in 2011 when he started 14 games. He graded out positively on Pro Football Focus.

Arrington gets a bad rap in New England due to letting up some big plays during his career, but it’s possible Patriots nation expects too much out of its cornerbacks. Arrington has been a solid contributor everywhere he’s played during his career and he’s a nice option third or fourth on the depth chart. He has rarely played outside with a solid safety like McCourty. (Most of the time Arrington has played outside, it’s been across from McCourty, not while McCourty has been back deep.)

The third option to take outside snaps is the rookie, Ryan. There’s not a whole lot known about the Rutgers rookie, since he hasn’t taken pro snaps yet, but scouts said he was a better zone player than man during his time with the Scarlet Knights. That means that like Arrington, it may make sense for the Patriots to go back to zone if Ryan is forced to play heavy snaps.

The goal in 2013 should be to stay away from names that will either make you scratch your head or shudder in horror a few years down the line. It was impressive how the team kept winning through it, but it was embarrassing that the Patriots had to keep signing players and immediately place them into starting roles in 2011. That spoke to the lack of depth going into the season that year.

The Patriots should have at least five players on their 53-man roster who can get the job done if Dennard misses time and another one or two on the practice squad for further depth. With so many pieces gone on offense, the defense needs to step up in 2013 if the Patriots hope to get back to the Super Bowl. A lot of that will depend on how well the secondary plays.

Have a question for Doug Kyed? Send it to him via Twitter at @DougKyedNESN or send it here.

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