The return of second-year cornerback Ras-I Dowling brings hope to a New England Patriots secondary that struggled heavily in 2011. Already projected as a starter, Dowling has the talent to emerge as the top cornerback on the Pats roster in training camp.
Standing at nearly 6'2'' and weighing a solid 198 lbs, Dowling sticks out from the Patriots' current cornerback crop. His size should allow him to handle large receivers in the NFL. Evidenced by his 4.46 40-yard dash time, he also has the speed to keep pace with the faster outside receivers in the league.
Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston noted Dowling's showcase of speed during organized team activities, writing: "At one point, he nicely defended an out-and-up move by receiver Brandon Lloyd. He also ran stride for stride with Lloyd, showing the type of speed necessary to play on the outside."
Known for his physical play at the line of scrimmage, Dowling also brings a healthy dose of physicality that, barring Patrick Chung, the Pats defensive backfield has severely lacked as of late. Dowling's long arms (31 inches) and thick frame should help him disrupt wide receivers' routes off the line.
Last season, the Patriots secondary was routinely beat by big and fast wide receivers. Dowling's presence should alleviate this issue and could potentially create more favorable matchups for the smaller, less physical Devin McCourty (5'10'', 193 lbs).
While McCourty was drafted a bit higher than Dowling (No. 27 overall in 2010 and No. 33 overall in 2011, respectively), Dowling may be the more talented defensive back. Had Dowling not had injury concerns, he likely would have been a high first-round pick.
Jeff Howe of BostonHerald.com echoed this sentiment in a recent blog post:
Ras-I Dowling has to prove he can stay healthy in his second season. He was viewed as a potential top-15 draft pick if he left Virginia after his junior year, but injuries as a senior pushed him into the second round.
Early this offseason, Dowling had surgery to correct a nagging hip injury that landed him on the injured reserve list as a rookie (as noted by Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston). With no reported setbacks since the surgery, Dowling was a full participant in both organized team activities and minicamp.
With a clean bill of health, Dowling's uncommon blend of size, speed and physicality will separate him from the pack in training camp. Come the start of the 2012 season, Dowling will be New England's top defender in the secondary.