NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
With the 33rd overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, the New England Patriots selected Virginia cornerback Ras-I Dowling. Not only did Dowling’s 6’1”, 210-pound frame and sub-4.5 40-time suggest that he was fit for physical man coverage, but it also suggested that he had the tools to be a safety convert. He was touted as a leader, a battler, a coach’s player and consequently, a top-tier defensive back prospect.
Former Virginia defensive coordinator Jim Reid once said that Dowling “has no weakness.” Time has shown that he does have one, however; a big one:
Dowling had missed substantial time due to injury dating back to his days at Deep Creek High School in Chesapeake, Va., where he never played an entire season. His medical woes stuck with him all the way through his senior year with the Cavaliers, when he was limited to only five games as a result of hamstring, knee and ankle problems.
But obviously, the term “injury prone” did not scare Bill Belichick and Co. away from taking Dowling with what was essentially a first-round draft choice. Right off the bat, New England’s bold decision paid dividends, despite the fact hamstring issues kept No. 21 out for part of the preseason. By September of 2011, Dowling had secured a starting cornerback spot across from second-year man Devin McCourty. He notched starts in his first two NFL contests and allowed just three receptions for 74 yards on seven targets, according to Pro Football Focus.
There wouldn’t be a third start for him that season, though. During the Week 2 tilt versus the San Diego Chargers, Dowling tore his hip labrum. Although not typically viewed as a season-ending injury, his 53-man roster spot was seemingly too valuable to put on ice. Dowling’s rookie campaign had come to an end, as he was placed on injured reserve and subbed by Kyle Arrington. Surgery wasn’t in the initial diagnosis, but it was opted for later on.
Entering Year 2, expectations for Dowling were still high. He had made a full recovery. And he had, after all, seized a top job at corner during his first NFL season. The feeling around Foxboro was that Dowling would assume a primary role once again. That did not prove to be the case. Dowling saw his most extensive workload in Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans: 42 defensive snaps, per Football Outsiders. After that point, he amassed a grand total of 58 defensive snaps through the rest of 2012.
Dowling lost his responsibilities as starter, then his responsibilities as nickelback. Sterling Moore and Marquice Cole — two former undrafted players with special teams experience — had eclipsed him on the depth chart. The lanky DB allowed seven receptions for 49 yards on nine targets. In addition, he also registered three penalties, cites ESPNBoston.com’s Field Yates.
Dowling tore his quadriceps tendon after seven games and landed on injured reserve for the second consecutive season. Two years, nine games, two starts, 10 tackles and one pass breakup.
Will Dowling ever fulfill the promise bestowed upon him two years ago? Where was he best utilized? Was there a drastic difference in performance between 2011 and 2012? In attempt to find answers to these questions, I turned to the tape and watched both of Dowling’s rookie performances in contrast with a couple of his sophomore performances.
2011 Season, Week 1 versus Miami Dolphins — Two Tackles
– Starts at right corner in man against Brandon Marshall. Marshall runs a fade, manipulating Dowling towards the numbers as he leans towards the sideline, yielding a 25-yard gain.
– Does a nice job getting his hands up before the five-yard bubble and jamming his man’s routes.
– Playing off-man, Dowling gives Davone Bess the cushion to cut inside on a dig route. Lunges and misses tackle. Catch and run results in a 26-yard gain.
– Cheats off Brian Hartline on a curl route, brings him down after 11-yard gain. But the play is nullified by an offensive holding call.
– Gets called for illegal contact away from play, but penalty is declined. Dowling tightens up his man in second half, going toe-to-toe with his receivers without allowing another grab.
2011 Season, Week 2 versus San Diego Chargers — Tackle
– Starts at right corner, lined up versus Vincent Jackson.
– Absorbs his man at the line of scrimmage, shades him, and quarterback Phillip Rivers has to check down to his halfback.
– Plays off Malcolm Floyd and gets beat on a post route for a 23-yard gain because of it.
– Midway through second quarter, Dowling falls down following an incomplete pass and is aided by the medical staff. He lies on his stomach before rolling over in severe pain. It was his final play on the field in 2011.
2012 Season, Week 1 versus Tennessee Titans — Four Tackles
– Enters the game on Tennessee’s first series in the nickel package, but plays on the outside.
– Gets caught sleeping on a Kendall Wright quick slant which results in a 17-yard gain. With his hips facing sideline, he is in an immediate disadvantage to the inside pass.
– Set up in off-man coverage, Dowling allows too much space and gets beat on a Damian Williams quick slant. He’s steps behind and gets called for defensive pass interference.
– Allows the free safety to assume his receiver as he breaks into the flat to make a tackle on the halfback.
– Jumps the snap to shove Williams before his first step, disengages and lets Williams run inside. A 12 yard gain is the byproduct.
– Wright drops back to catch a screen pass, Dowling sheds a block and brings the receiver down for a three-yard loss.
2012 Season, Week 5 versus Denver Broncos — Two Tackles
– Moore and 2012 seventh-rounder Alfonzo Dennard garner significant reps, while Dowling sees work in the “Money” role guarding tight ends and halfbacks. Dowling’s utilization as a hybrid linebacker is likely a result of Tavon Wilson being thrust into a starting role with Steve Gregory out at safety.
– Comes over from zone coverage in centerfield to help Moore wrap up Demaryius Thomas on a 20-yard catch down left sideline.
– Allows Joel Dreessen just enough real estate to catch Peyton Manning pass in the flat. Tackles the tight end after a seven-yard gain.
This is Dowling’s moment. If he can’t establish himself during training camp and the preseason, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Patriots cut bait with just one year left on his rookie contract.
Dowling possesses all the skills needed to be a tough man-to-man corner in the NFL. He just doesn’t seem to possess the sturdiness necessary to play in that manner. Best implemented press-man coverage, Dowling excels when he can step into his receivers. When forced to play in too much space, or against quick inside routes, he often looks lost.
Dowling’s size and athleticism are hard to come by. He’s the biggest Patriots cornerback on the 90-man roster, and he plays like it, too. Yet with Aqib Talib manning the starting left cornerback spot, Arrington manning the slot and rookie third-round draft pick Logan Ryan waiting in the wings, Dowling will have to stand out. While OTAs must be taken with a grain of salt — they are a classroom for football learning — Dowling has reportedly done just that.
As a 25-year-old entering his third year in the system, expect Dowling to make a run at the right cornerback spot currently held by Dennard. If he can make the competition a close one, that could be enough for him to remain in New England.
Tall, physical cornerbacks are few and far between. And when one has the range and smooth backpedal that Dowling does, they’re considered a sought-after commodity. That said, it all comes down to health. If Dowling can play a full season, or even half a season, he could work his way into a role on the outside, pressing imposing targets.
At least, that’s what New England’s coaching staff should be shooting for. Dowling’s career is much like one’s mindset after injury: Expect the worst, hope for the best. If he can put it all together, he could be the reclamation project of 2013.
Tags: Ras-I Dowling