FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots had loads of talent at cornerback coming into training camp, but injuries have slowly corroded that depth and left them a bit desperate of late.
Alfonzo Dennard and Ras-I Dowling have both missed extended time over the past few weeks with undisclosed injuries, leaving the cornerback cupboard barren. Both players sported full pads and returned to the practice field on Tuesday, but they still need more time to fully recover. Yet with the way Marquice Cole has played of late, they can probably take as much time as they need.
Cole, a veteran journeyman, is entering his second season with the Patriots and fifth overall. He played mostly as a special teamer in 2012, contributing on both punt and kick return coverage, but seems poised to take on a bigger role on defense this season — and he’s already begun that transition.
Given the mounting injuries on the corner, Cole and rookie Logan Ryan have been in forced into extended duty recently. Ryan received the bulk of playing time with the first team during the Patriots’ practices and preseason opener in Philadelphia last week, but a rough performance against the Eagles has seen Cole supplant him as the No. 3 corner for the time being.
Cole played a significant amount of snaps in the preseason opener, totaling four tackles on the night and even breaking up a third-down pass from Matt Barkley near the end of the second quarter. The effort raised some eyebrows around New England and showed, unexpectedly to some, his potential value in the secondary. But such solid play really shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise.
Cole played some slot corner with the Patriots last season, filling in whenever injuries piled up or they were in a serious bind. He performed well in limited action in the secondary, too. His season was highlighted by a pair of pass breakups in a Week 8 win over the St. Louis Rams and an interception of Chad Henne in a Week 16 win against the Jaguars. That sort of play has translated over this summer, too.
After starting training camp as the team’s sixth cornerback with the thought that undrafted rookies like Brandon Jones would vie for his spot, Cole has emerged as a reliable option at the back end of the defense. He’s enjoyed continued success against the Patriots’ receivers, showed up well against the Eagles’ top talent last week and is doing more of the same with the Buccaneers this week. Sure, there will still be some slip ups and mistakes from time to time but he’s pretty reliable on the whole.
Now, he’s not going to take snaps away from Dennard or Dowling when they’re healthy, and we can leave Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington out of this conversation entirely, but Cole is proving to be a reliable dime cornerback and someone who can step in and play the nickel in a tight spot.
There will be times this year when the Patriots are down one or two of their top cornerbacks and will need to rely on their depth to contribute. That shouldn’t be as much of a concern this year, though, because now Cole can give them just what they need.