Will 2013 be the year Ras-I Dowling puts it all together?
NFL coaches and general managers know what they have in a former draft pick by year three of their development.
For some players, that means they're due for a lucrative contract extension. For others, that means they're due to be out of the league.
Which side of the spectrum will it be for New England Patriots cornerback Ras-I Dowling?
The No. 33 overall selection in the 2011 draft hasn't made the impact that head coach Bill Belichick and Co. had hoped for. And at 6'1" and 210 pounds with a 40-yard-dash time of 4.4 seconds, it's not because of a lack of talent.
Does Dowling have what it takes to rewrite the book on his NFL career? It's time take a closer look at the 24-year-old defensive back.
Dowling has been derailed by injuries, and that was his track record coming out of Virginia. ProFootballTalk.com's Nolan Nawrocki (h/t Kevin Fishbain) made note of Dowling's health woes leading up to the draft:
Durability is a concern - has been hurt dating all the way back to high school, missing significant action, and could always be snakebitten.
Hamstring, knee and ankle problems limited Dowling to only five games during his senior campaign with the Cavaliers.
That injury-prone tag has not subsided.
Two contests into his rookie season with the Patriots, Dowling tore a tendon in his hip and was placed on injured reserve, according to Mike Rodak of ESPNBoston.com. That injury was preceded by a nagging hamstring problem which caused him to miss part of the 2011 training camp and preseason.
Expected to be back in the mix in 2012, Dowling fell victim to the injury bug yet again. Dowling tore his quadriceps seven games into the year and was placed on injured reserve, cites Rotoworld.com.
Two NFL seasons, two trips to the injured reserve. It's hard for the front office to put trust in a man who can't stay on the field.
A Reduced Role
Coach Belichick saw enough out of Dowling to give him a starting job as a rookie. Paired across from Devin McCourty, Dowling notched two starts in his only two games of 2011. He finished with a total of three tackles.
From a growth standpoint, that first stint on IR really hurt Dowling.
This past season, he was moved to nickelback before being replaced by then-Patriot Sterling Moore. Shortly thereafter, Dowling was swapped out for special teams journeyman Marquice Cole.
ESPNBoston.com's Rodak found the drop-off to be perplexing:
After Week 2, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia hinted at game plan being the reason for Dowling's reduced snaps, a head-scratcher given that in August, player personnel director Nick Caserio singled out Dowling for his size (he's 6-foot-1), noting that there has been an influx of bigger cornerbacks in the league to match up against bigger receivers.
Dowling only played in seven games in 2012. He finished with seven tackles and one pass deflection.
Where Dowling Must Improve
While Dowling is a very patient defender, he shows stiff hips on occasion. Even when healthy this past season, that vulnerability was still exploited by receivers.
Against the Titans in Week 1, Dowling was outmatched by Tennessee wideout Kendall Wright. Wright caught Dowling napping on two quick slants over the course of three plays in the first quarter. Here is a breakdown of the second play, which netted penalty flags.
Lined up in man coverage, Dowling was watching the quarterback's eyes. His left foot was planted closer to the line of scrimmage than his right. Wright took advantage of it, as he ran underneath.
One step ahead of Dowling, Wright broke open over the middle.
Unable to catch up, Dowling resorted to holding Wright as the ball sailed in. The Patriots were called for pass interference on the play. It was one of Dowling's three penalties last season, per Field Yates of ESPNBoston.com.
Dowling's poor showing in the season opener dictated the rest of his year. As his success rate in coverage faltered, so did his workload.
In his play-by-play examination, Dave Archibald of DaveBreaksDownFilm.blogspot.com held Dowling responsible for eight catches on 10 targets in 2012.
Where Dowling Excels
Stepping in to press his man at the five-yard mark is Dowling's forte. At this juncture, he isn't afraid to get physical before jumping the route to make a play on the ball.
Dowling showcased that prowess in the first quarter against the New York Jets on Oct. 21—the final game he played last season.
Jets wide receiver Chaz Schilens ran a curl route. Meanwhile, Dowling waited to jam him on the pivot.
Dowling makes contact, but disengages quickly to get his hand up and knock down the throw from Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.
This is where it pays off to have a cornerback over 6'0" tall. Dowling is strong enough to play bump and run with targets and can close down passing lanes in the process.
Make or Break Year in 2013
This upcoming season may be Dowling's last chance to establish himself in New England's defensive backfield.
Cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Kyle Arrington and Marquice Cole are all about to become unrestricted free agents, which leaves a window open for Dowling to secure a spot.
Outside of 2012 seventh-round gem Alfonzo Dennard, the Patriots have scarce cornerback depth. Because of this discrepancy, Dowling likely holds enough value to stick around next year.
Dowling's contract will absorb over $3 million of New England's salary cap through 2014, based on Spotrac.com's data. From a brass tacks perspective, Dowling is certainly a liability for the Patriots to retain, especially if another cornerback is added in April's draft.
Dowling still might pan out for the Patriots. Although if he doesn't, he wouldn't be the first touted cornerback prospect to go down that path.
And New England isn't afraid to cut their losses.
In 2009, New England selected Connecticut's Darius Butler in Round 2. Butler lasted just two years in Foxborough before being let go. In 2008, the Patriots nabbed Colorado's Terrence Wheatley in Round 2. Wheatley, like Dowling, was hampered by injuries and played in just 11 games over three seasons with the Patriots.
At the end of the day, Dowling has the size, athleticism and cover skills to shine in the NFL. However, his physical ailments haven't allowed him to do so on a consistent basis.
Entering his third season with New England, it's now or never for No. 21. It's up to Dowling to prove the organization that he was worth the investment.