Another spring in New England, another confusing Patriots draft. At this point it’s becoming a reliable tradition right up there with Marathon Monday and Mud Season.
Heading into the draft, Pats fans expected that Bill Belichick would finally use his multiple picks to get the outside pass rusher that the team has been lacking.
Instead, they took a defensive back, just like they did in the past two years.
But this time they didn't choose a typical cover-style corner. The Patriots took Virginia defensive back Ras-I Dowling because he’s the type of player that NFL defenses are using to stop the wide-open offenses of the NFL.
The past two Super Bowl champions, the Saints and the Packers, both featured spread offenses. Teams that are going to compete in the NFL today are going to have to find ways to slow down these high-powered offensive systems.
Conventional defensive wisdom says the way to stop these modern day pass-happy offenses is to have a dominant pass rush. After all, top-level quarterbacks will pick apart a defense if given the ability to just stand back in the pocket undisturbed, right?
Maybe not. A closer look at how defensive coordinators at the college level are having success says that a pass rush might not be the best weapon.
More and more colleges are utilizing defenses that feature “tweeners,” the type of players who are athletic enough to play in space and at the same time physical enough to make tackles.
For all of recent football history, calling someone a tweener was the ultimate insult. It meant you were just alright at multiple aspects of the game but not dominant enough at any one skill to be an impact player.
The way the game is changing, a good tweener is a prized commodity.
Many of the better college defenses use multiple tweeners, most notably the 4-2-5 scheme that TCU has implemented with success the last few years. The key to this defense is putting as much speed as possible on the field to counteract the speed the offense is trying to get in space.
When the defense first debuted, it looked like offenses would be able to run all over these hybrid defenses, that there wasn't enough size up the middle. What’s made this defense viable is how it utilizes tweeners. Instead of replacing one of the linebackers with a classic defensive back, teams are replacing that linebacker with a tweener.
These players are able to be good enough at both aspects, run support and pass defense, that they can be used to shut down many of the advantages a multiple receiver set gives the offense. It’s this versatile skill set that the Patriots see in Dowling.
At 6'1", 198 lbs with a 4.40 40 time, Dowling has both the speed to cover receivers and the size to hold his own against the running game.
During his time in college he displayed superior ball skills and the ability to make open-field tackles. His versatility is a trait that New England has coveted all throughout their dynasty, but recent defensive trends in the NFL make him even more valuable.
His ability to defend against dynamic passing attacks means Dowling will be a welcome addition to the Patriots depth chart.