New England Patriots: Cornerback Position a Wild Card Going into 2012

Drew BonifantAnalyst IIApril 4, 2012

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 24:  Devin McCourty #32 of the New England Patriots celebrates intercepting a Miami Dolphins pass with teammate Rob Ninkovich during the fourth quarter of New England's 27-24 win at Gillette Stadium on December 24, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)
Winslow Townson/Getty Images

Strengths and weaknesses are usually just that—strengths and weaknesses. Polar opposites. Not a lot of room for gray area.

The New England Patriots—at cornerback, specifically—are breaking the mold.

You can build an argument that New England's depth at corner is barren. The Patriots were the second-worst team against the pass last year, after all. They lack a clear No. 1 starter, and they don't have the personnel for reliable sub packages. They need to spend one draft pick—at least—to find the upgrade so desperately needed.

You can build a case that the Patriots have a good thing going in the secondary. They have youth and upside to go around. Their playmaking cornerback from the postseason might only be on the field for nickel and dime sets. The Patriots can improve between this year and next just by keeping the players they have.

That's the way it seems to be in New England. The draft is less than a month away, and it's hard to tell just how urgent and necessary improvements are.

There's no spot that's locked up. Kyle Arrington is the surest option, as he led the league in interceptions last year and has progressed steadily since breaking through as a starter in 2010. He was reliable all throughout last season, and there's little reason to expect him to backslide.

After that, question marks abound. Devin McCourty has the No. 1 job if he can find his 2010 Pro Bowl form, but he could also be headed to safety if his struggles from last year weren't merely a sophomore slump.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 05:  Mario Manningham #82 of the New York Giants runs for yards after the catch against Sterling Moore #29 of the New England Patriots during Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 5, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (
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Sterling Moore forever endeared himself to fans with his strip of Lee Evans that negated an AFC championship-winning touchdown, and his storybook postseason would have included a forced fumble in the Super Bowl if it weren't for a penalty for too many men on the field.

But where does Moore fit in? He was lined out wide last year when McCourty moved to safety, but if McCourty rebounds, Moore falls to a nickelback or dimeback—and that's assuming he doesn't take a step back from his quality play at the end of the season.

Neither of the aforementioned corners has as large a gulf between best- and worst-case scenario as Ras-I Dowling.

The first pick of the second round in 2011, Dowling has an elite mix of speed and size (6'1", 198 pounds) that should allow him to match up against smaller, quicker wideouts and larger, more physical receivers.

But he gets hurt. A lot.

Injury problems were the knock on Dowling coming out of Virginia, and it was more of the same in his rookie year, as he missed preseason time with a hamstring injury and played only two games in the regular season before a torn tendon in his leg ended his year.

Dowling personifies the boom-or-bust nature of the cornerback corps. He could be a quality starter for the Patriots for years to come, maybe even the No. 1. He could also be a flame-out, a promising talent who just can't get out of his own way.

With so many variables, it's hard to project just how healthy the position is. The Patriots could have four good corners right now. They could also have a corner, a safety, a one-year wonder and an eternally wounded bust.

Who would have thought being loaded and being bereft of depth could be so closely intertwined?

It's a murky situation. Fortunately, Bill Belichick will be the one sorting through the chaos. But even the coach has to be wondering what exactly he has on his hands.