Dowling will be fighting a positional battle for the Pats' second CB position in training camp.
We're coming up on the start of NFL training camp. For fans of the New England Patriots, that hopefully signals the end of a rough offseason and the beginning of a fresh race for the divisional crown.
With that in mind, let's focus on football, and in particular, some candidates who are poised to surprise with some upstart training camp performances.
Success in training camp doesn't guarantee regular-season success, of course. Still, let's take a look at a few players whose training camp performances could help them carve out an opportunity to prove themselves once the games really count.
Ras-I Dowling will only come as a surprise in training camp if you weren't paying attention in OTAs.
Dowling, who was picked 33rd overall in the 2011 draft, has always had starting talent for a cornerback. It has been a question of health for Dowling, who has spent the majority of his first two seasons on injured reserve.
Now, Dowling appears to be healthy and the results have come as expected.
Putting aside Dowling's injury concerns, it's very encouraging to see reports of his burgeoning man-coverage skills. Reiss noted that Dowling shined in one-on-one matchups with rookie Aaron Dobson.
The one knock on Dowling has been his lack of elite speed, so his ability to blanket a receiver like Dobson may mean Dowling is not only back, but that he has also put in the work to become better than advertised.
The Patriots had the league's deepest and most talented tight ends corps heading into last season.
Under those circumstances, an undrafted free agent like Brandon Ford wouldn't have had a chance to crack the starting lineup.
Circumstances have changed in New England, however, and one of the few resulting silver linings is that the Pats will get a chance to see if a talented young player can produce with an undrafted rookie contract.
Ford is big (6'3", 240 pounds), fast enough to challenge linebackers (4.66 in the 40-yard dsah) and able to move around the field. Ford can contribute as an H-back, in-line blocker and a "Move" tight end.
I'm not saying Ford will be the next Aaron Hernandez, although their 40 times are comparable. While Ford is two inches taller than the released Hernandez, it takes a lot more than measurables to be an elite pass-catcher.
Still, Ford's skill set makes him more suitable to slot into Hernandez's role than someone like Zach Sudfeld, who profiles more as an inline blocker and red zone threat.
If Ford can demonstrate his effectiveness and versatility to the Pats' staff in training camp, he could warrant an opportunity to replace one of the Pats' departed weapons. I'm expecting him to do just that.
Jake Bequette was the forgotten man last season for the Patriots.
He was a neglected third-rounder in a Patriots' draft class that produced three starters, a sub-package defensive back and a couple of special teams contributors.
Expect Bequette to reverse that trend and surprise a lot of people in this training camp.
Bequette got a number of snaps with the first unit during OTAs, playing "alongside the likes of Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower", according to ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss.
Bequette was a productive pass-rusher in the SEC, racking up 10 sacks in his final season, and has the size (6'5", 274 pounds), quickness and smarts to contribute to the Pats.
Bequette, like fellow 2012 draftee Chandler Jones, can play defensive end or outside linebacker, and as a two-time captain at Arkansas, he fits the profile of a prototypical Patriot—smart, versatile and hard-working.
I predict that a year of learning under the tutelage of Patriots players like Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich will pay off for Bequette this year.
If he gets more opportunities to play with the starters in training camp, Bequette could shine and provide a boost to a pass rush that finished 23rd in the league in adjusted sack rate, per Football Outsiders.
I get a lot of hate for my Kyle Arrington affinity around here, but I suspect it won't last through this football season.
Arrington is not a shutdown sideline corner in the NFL. We've seen enough of him to ascertain that much, but as a slot corner, Arrington is well above average, and his skills on special teams make him even more valuable.
With three capable press-man corners this season in Aqib Talib, Ras-I Dowling and (hopefully) Alfonzo Dennard, Arrington shouldn't have to move out of position again.
Arrington has already picked up where he left off as a slot corner in OTAs, and with Dowling's emergence, he should get a chance to continue displaying his slot skills in training camp.
Maybe an outstanding camp will be enough to get fans off Arrington's back—although I suspect it will take a bit longer for casual fans to do so. Irrespective of the tide of public opinion, a strong camp will cement Arrington as a contributor in sub packages, and slot corners in today's NFL are basically starters.
Arrington may never be a star, but he is a very valuable player out of the "star" position.
Mark Harrison could be yet another Patriots player in line to try to fill Aaron Hernandez's Joker-type role.
Harrison is one of a number of Rutgers players with a shot to crack the Patriots' roster (the Pats drafted and signed a small army of Scarlet Knights in the offseason).
As a wide receiver, his speed is merely average, but as a "Move" tight end, Harrison has the kind of measurables that scouts love to see.
At 6'3 and 230 pounds, Harrison runs a 4.46 40, a full two-10ths of a second faster than Hernandez. Harrson was a top performer at the NFL combine in the vertical leap (38.5") and broad jump (10'9"), which speaks to his explosiveness and ability to make himself a truly big target with range to balls that most defensive back can't get to.
Harrison hasn't yet lived up to his measurables, never totaling more than 44 catches in a season in college. Still, he's a viable red zone threat who is tough to bring down.
He's also a capable blocker for his size, which makes him valuable in the Patriots' system. The Pats like multi-dimensional players who can come on the field without signaling to the defense that the play call is a run or pass.
Harrison's draft stock slipped due to a fractured metatarsal bone, and possibly due to a bizarre incident involving a trashed hotel and DeAndre Hopkins. Still, Harrison has potential, and if the Pats and Tom Brady can help him put it together, he could be part of a new generation of wide receiver/tight end hybrids that began with the Hernandez era.
I'm predicting a big training camp for Harrison, who aims to make a team with an uncertain WR situation. There's no guarantee he makes the roster, of course, but this training camp is his shot to do it.