NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
The Patriots made a surprising decision when they selected Ras-I Dowling, a gifted but also inconsistent cornerback coming off of an injury-riddled season with the 33rd overall selection in the 2011 NFL draft.
His career with the Patriots has been a disappointment thus far, and for the second consecutive year, his season ended early when he was placed on injured reserve Friday, this time with a thigh injury.
The Patriots have been trying to fix their secondary since 2007, having drafted at least one defensive back in the first two rounds of each of the last six drafts. Dowling kept that streak alive in 2011, and the Patriots brought him in with the expectation that the long, athletic cornerback could pair up with 2010 first-round pick Devin McCourty to give the Patriots a standout duo of cornerbacks for many years to come.
That has not been the case, especially for Dowling. When he has been healthy, his productivity has been very limited and his performance has been poor. His biggest problem, however, has just been staying healthy enough to play, and getting playing time when he is healthy.
Dowling’s on-field play has been a big disappointment in his first two seasons. Dowling has an ideal combination of size and athletic ability, and the skills to be a big playmaker at cornerback, but has struggled with coverage mistakes, missed tackles and penalties. As a result, he only played 83 snaps in the Patriots’ first seven games of the season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Injuries, however, are something the Patriots should have seen coming with Dowling. Hamstring, knee and ankle injuries limited Dowling to just five games in his senior season at Virginia, and even limited him from completing a full workout at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine.
Dowling’s physical abilities and coverage skills gave him upside that could have made him a first-round pick if healthy, but coming off of an injury-riddled season in which he did not play particularly well even when he was on the field, he came into the draft as a third-round value.
Under the three-day NFL draft format implemented by the league in 2010, the 33rd overall draft pick is essentially a first-round draft selection. Although separated from the first round by nearly a full day, there are always first-round talents still available on the draft’s second day.
Additionally, the long time lapse means there is plenty of time for teams to consider trading up for a player they covet, which means that the team holding the 33rd pick will always have lucrative trade offers, such a first-round pick for the following year’s draft, available to them if they choose to trade down.
Considering the New England Patriots’ frequent draft strategy in recent seasons of trading down and picking up selections for the following year’s draft, the prevailing expectation was that the Patriots would keep with that strategy and trade away from the 33rd spot when they held that pick in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft.
Instead they made a risky pick, and what was essentially a first-round pick now appears to be going to waste.
The Patriots’ acquisition of the 33rd pick was a result of one of the more lopsided trades in recent draft history, in which the Patriots traded the 89th overall selection in the 2010 NFL draft to the Carolina Panthers (used to select Armanti Edwards, who has been a complete bust in his transition from quarterback to wide receiver) for a 2011 first-round pick, that turned out to be the first pick in that round when the Panthers tanked the following season.
The Patriots failed to advantage of that great trade, however. They drafted a risky, injury-prone and inconsistent cornerback when there were much better options available. Other players who went in early in the 2011 second round included current Bills cornerback Aaron Williams or Texans pass-rusher Brooks Reed, or the Patriots likely could have picked up a third 2012 first-round draft pick by trading out.
Dowling could still turn his career around and end up being a solid draft choice, but there’s plenty of reason to be pessimistic at this point. Even though the Patriots have one of the league’s worst secondaries, they kept Dowling buried on the depth chart until last week’s game versus the New York Jets. He did impressively force two incompletions last week, but he also picked up two penalties and badly missed a tackle.
Dowling’s potential is quickly being drained by his proneness to injuries, and even though the Patriots invested a high draft pick in him, 2013 is likely to be decision time for Dowling. If he fails to step up his game to a level where the Patriots can feel confident in having him on the field, which is contingent largely on whether he can even stay healthy enough to play, the Patriots could move on from him before next season even begins.
Dowling wouldn’t be the first major defensive back bust by the Patriots in recent years. Colorado cornerback Terrence Wheatley was the 62nd overall pick in the 2008 draft, but like Dowling, injuries kept him off the field for the most part, and he did not play well when he was in the game. A nearly nonexistent game in run defense doomed the career of Darius Butler, who was drafted 41st overall out of Connecticut in 2009.
Both Wheatley and Butler lasted just two seasons with the team, and Dowling could be set to follow in their footsteps. Considering the value of the draft pick with which he was selected, Dowling may be the worst bust of them all.
This string of bad second-round draft picks on cornerbacks has had a damaging ripple effect on the Patriots, leaving them with one of the league’s worst secondaries.
McCourty, who was selected 27th out of Rutgers in 2010, is a big playmaker but also blows coverages too often, which has hurt the Patriots’ pass defense. Strong safety Patrick Chung, the 34th overall selection out of Oregon in 2009, has also battled injuries and subpar coverage skills, and is unlikely to be re-signed when his contract runs out at the end of this season.
If you’re looking for one main reason why the Patriots’ secondary has been so bad since the team chose not to sign Asante Samuel to a new contract in 2008, you should look no further than the draft picks gone wrong. Unfortunately for the Patriots, it is looking ever more likely that they were most wrong of all on Dowling.