There was a sentence tidbit buried in Peter King's "Monday Morning Quarterback" column on SI.com this week that could have a major impact on the New England Patriots' offseason plans.
King wrote that the rehab of Pats cornerback Ras-I Dowling's hip surgery was going very well, and that Dowling should be ready for most — if not all — of his offseason work. The 6-foot-1, 198-pound Dowling was the 33rd overall pick in last year's NFL draft (first pick in second round) out of Virginia.
Dowling was expected to be a key contributor right away and had earned a starting job before suffering a hip injury in New England's Week 2 win over the San Diego Chargers. Dowling wasn't set for surgery at first -? he even practiced for a few weeks after the injury (but didn't play in a game) — but the Pats put him on season-ending injured reserve in late October after an MRI showed a torn tendon in his leg.
Dowling's status could go a long way toward shoring up the Patriots secondary.
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The question now is: Can New England count on Dowling to help boost a pass defense that was one of the worst in NFL history last season?
No team that reached a Super Bowl had ever allowed as many passing yards as the Patriots (4,703) did last regular season. Dowling no doubt would have helped, but he has proven to be injury prone. Dowling missed the Patriots' first three preseason games and much of training camp with a hamstring injury, and he played in only five games in his senior season at Virginia due to multiple injuries.
In his limited NFL time on the field, though, Dowling has looked good. He allowed just three receptions in 93 total snaps played in two games.
You have to think that head coach Bill Belichick would loathe to take a defensive back in the first two rounds of the draft yet again in 2012. Last year, it was Dowling. In 2010, it was Devin McCourty in the first round. In 2009, Patrick Chung and Darius Butler went in the second round. In 2008, it was the forgettable Terrence Wheatley. And in 2007, it was Brandon Meriweather who went in Round 1.
If Dowling is medically fine, the Pats could wait until the later rounds for a corner and look for a receiver in the first or second round if they don't sign a free agent such as Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace or St. Louis' Brandon Lloyd.
But perhaps New England fans would rather the team not draft a receiver high in the draft considering Belichick and Co. haven't landed a good one that way since 2002, when they got Deion Branch (second round) and David Givens (seventh round). The list of misses since then includes Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, Brandon Tate (selected shortly before the Steelers picked Wallace in 2009) and Taylor Price.
This year's draft class is considered very deep at the position, and the Patriots have two first and two second-round picks to maneuver.
Keep an eye on Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill, whose stock has skyrocketed after the NFL Combine. The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder tied for the fastest 40 time of the combine among receivers with a 4.36. Hill also had a 39.5-inch vertical leap and one highlight-reel diving catch during position drills.