Emergence of Logan Ryan, Marquice Cole in Patriots’ Secondary Gave Bill Belichick Confidence to Release Ras-I Dowling

Logan Ryan, Justin Green, Justin FrancisRas-I Dowling still had a reserved parking space out in front of Gillette Stadium as of late Thursday night, even though he no longer had a place on the Patriots’ roster.

Dowling earned that parking spot this offseason, when he, along with Tom BradyJerod MayoRob Ninkovich and others, was recognized as one of the Patriots’ offseason workout award winners. Just as it’s been in the two-plus years since he was drafted with the first pick of the second round, though, Dowling’s promise and potential just never translated onto the football field in New England.

After two seasons and three training camps filled with endless exercise bike rides and visits to the trainer’s room, the Patriots finally shelved Dowling for good this week, ending his frustrating tenure with the team. The decision to cut the 25-year-old corner became a helluva lot easier for Bill Belichick and the coaching staff this preseason, as some unexpected players were able to step up and account for his absence in the secondary.

The obvious stars like Aqib Talib, Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty are already expected to make a difference in the secondary, but, with questions about Alfonzo Dennard‘s health — he didn’t play in any of the Patriots’ preseason games — and potential legal implications from his July arrest, there were concerns farther down the depth chart early in the preseason. The presence of veteran Marquice Cole and third-round rookie Logan Ryan helped to quell those concerns with strong play on the outside this preseason.

Cole, who played sparingly on the corner for the Patriots in 2012, will never be a starter or even a consistent contributor on the outside, but he’s proven throughout the preseason that he can be relied on at the back end of the depth chart. A pair of pass breakups and some solid coverage on the outside against the Giants reinforced that notion on Thursday night, confirming Belichick’s faith in him.

Ryan, on the other hand, is far from a proven veteran or at the height of his potential yet. The 23-year-old came into camp as wide-eyed and raw as you might expect from a rookie corner, but, five weeks and four preseason games later, he already looks like a different player.

The rookie has played more snaps than any other Patriots defender this preseason, spending time with the first-, second- and third-team defense and embracing every opportunity as a chance to improve. The highlight of Ryan’s preseason came in the second game, when he returned an interception for a touchdown against the Buccaneers, but he’s made plays since that have just continued to raise eyebrows and hopes. He managed a pair of pass breakups against the Giants on Thursday, sticking with Victor Cruz and the rest of the Giants’ receiving corps with a veteran feel for most of the night. He did stumble on a goal-line jam against Hakeem Nicks, allowing Eli Manning to hit the receiver with relative ease for a score early on, but rookie mistakes like that are all part of the developmental process. The key takeaway from the game should be that Ryan responded positively and didn’t fall victim to the same mistake again — as he rarely does.

Neither Ryan nor Cole is ready to be a starter for the Patriots right now, but both would be, at the very least, serviceable if forced into extended duty. Sure, it would’ve been nice to have a depth chart that included the size (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) and skills of Dowling, but, as the old saying goes, you can’t make the club from the tub — and Dowling just couldn’t stay healthy.

Cutting Dowling couldn’t have been an easy decision for Belichick to make, no matter the circumstance. Belichick knows talent when he sees it, and there’s no doubting Dowling’s pure talent or work ethic as a player — hence the parking spot. The head coach also knows when to cut his losses, though, and the development of Ryan and Cole just helped ease an otherwise difficult situation.

Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.

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