The pads are finally on, and training camp is now in full force for the New England Patriots. There are some intriguing position battles going down in camp, but perhaps the most important one comes where the Patriots have struggled the most in recent years—in the secondary.
The focus today is on the deep position battle at cornerback for the Pats.
Aqib Talib has established himself as the team's top starting cornerback, and he will cover each opponent's best wide receiver every game this season. Talib has been strong in camp, so far, and has given Danny Amendola a tough time in practice, according to Erik Scalavino of Patriots Football Weekly.
The No. 1 cornerback position is 100 percent Talib's; that is not where the battle lies. The No. 2 and No. 3 corner spots are where things are getting competitive.
Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling and Logan Ryan are all battling it out to become starters at cornerback.
Dennard, who became the starter alongside Talib at the tail end of last season, seems to be the best option, but it is still unknown as to whether or not (or how long) he will be suspended for due to his arrest earlier this month.
Despite the off-field problems, Dennard says that he has all of his attention on football.
"I'm just worried about the present right now," he told USA Today's Jarrett Bell. "And the present is being on the field to help my team win and just doing my job."
Dennard has been very productive in camp as well and has shown great ball skills, according to ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss. He has defended the ball well and has done a good job in coverage.
Last season, after slipping to the Pats in Round 7 of the draft, he finished off the season playing very strong football. He ended up with three interceptions as a rookie, including one returned for a touchdown.
Arrington has plenty of experience as a starter too, and the Patriots showed their trust in him by re-signing the cornerback to a four-year deal.
Reiss cited that Arrington has been the No. 2 cornerback in practice when Dennard is off the field. He finished No. 4 on the team in tackles with 74 in 2012, 62 being solo tackles.
The question is will Arrington play like his 2011 self, when he led the league with seven interceptions, or will it be the same player who did not record a single pick in 2012?
The truth is, he is a better fit in the slot, and that's how the Pats may want to continue using him.
One player who was rather impressive during spring organized team activities was Ras-I Dowling. He has finally been able to stay healthy and get in plenty of reps in practice.
Dowling definitely has the skills to become a starter on defense. There's a reason why he was the No. 33 overall pick in the 2011 draft. The problem has been his durability, missing significant time due to injury.
He has great size for a cornerback at 6'1", 215 pounds. A pairing of Talib and Dowling on the outside, both with good size, would be an advantage for the Patriots.
Recently, NESN's Doug Kyed showed frustration with Dowling's injury issues, especially because of how great he can be when healthy:
Dowling’s injuries are frustrating because he’s so talented. Talib is a great player, but Dowling may be the best cornerback on the team when he’s actually healthy. He surprised everyone by starting out of the gate in 2011 as a rookie, and he looked damn good in doing so. He’s always impressive at practice and during the preseason, it’s just a matter of playing a full season.
Third-round pick Logan Ryan is also a candidate to get major playing time this season at corner. He might not be ready to become a starter right off the bat, but he could easily see more and more action as the season goes on.
If Dennard misses time, Dowling and Ryan will have superb opportunities to make the most out of their minutes on the field.
It is unclear whether or not Dennard will be suspended, but it is a possibility that the team must be ready for. The Patriots will need to rely on Arrington, Dowling or Ryan to take his place.
The secondary has been a weak area for the Patriots in recent history, but things looked a whole lot brighter when Talib and Dennard became the starters last season.
Dowling could very well work his way into a starter's role this season if he can finally get over the injury hump. Depending on how training camp unravels, he could give Dennard and Arrington a tough battle to become a starter.
For now, the best option is to have Talib and Dennard on the outside corners, Arrington in the slot and Dowling as Dennard's replacement when need be.