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Why Oakland Raiders Safety Jonathan Dowling Needs More Snaps in 2015 Season

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistJuly 10, 2015

Jonathan Dowling
Jonathan DowlingAssociated Press

The Oakland Raiders have another gem buried within their roster from the 2014 draft class, and he needs more snaps in 2015. 

Cornerbacks Keith McGill and Travis Carrie hope to improve a Raiders pass defense that surrendered 29 passing touchdowns in 2014. Charles Woodson recorded four interceptions out of nine in total for the team. Just like defensive end Justin Tuck who led the team in sacks (five), it’s time to pass the torch.

Who's the next man up behind Woodson? It's clear safety Jonathan Dowling has the talent to make an impact, but his maturity issues in college forced him to climb a steep hill back into recognition as a high-end player. 

College Bad Boy Gone Ball Hawk

This game against Kentucky was Dowling’s best performance of his collegiate career. He managed to play at a high level for the 2012 season, despite sitting out a whole year due to NCAA transfer restrictions.

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Why was a talent like Dowling playing at Western Kentucky anyway? According to NFL.com’s Nolan Nawrocki, the safety had an opportunity on the big stage at Florida but insubordination under former head coach Urban Meyer dimmed his chances of getting nationwide recognition:

Began his college career at Florida, seeing action in two games as a true freshman in 2010. In November, though, he was kicked off the team in-season by coach Urban Meyer for reportedly not complying with staff and coaches as well as skipping class. Sat out in 2011, transferring to Western Kentucky. Returned to the field in 2012 and immediately made his presence felt, recording 68 tackles, seven pass breakups and six interceptions with 2.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles in 12 games (11 starts) at free safety.

Dowling was a true freshman at the time of his mistakes and hopefully with time comes maturity. Undeniably, time away from the field brought out the best in his play:

Jonathan Dowling at Western Kentucky
YearTacklesInterceptionsPasses DefensedForced Fumbles
2012406132
201355376
Sports-Reference.com

According to safety Nate Allen, via Raiders.com writer Eddie Paskal, he’s the designated ball hawk within the secondary:

"I was brought here a lot for that, to be an over-the-top guy, play in the middle of the field a lot and be a ball hawk. Go get the ball and create turnovers."

Why not have two ball-hawking safeties covering the back end of the defense? Dowling fits the part as an Ed Reed type of safety who not only forces turnovers but also looks to convert those turnovers into points. He’s a big hitter capable of jarring the ball loose on contact, as indicated by his six forced fumbles in 2013.

Woodson’s Slow Erosion

Woodson, 38, can still start at safety for several NFL teams. After leading the Raiders in interceptions this past season, his erosion has gone unnoticed.

Charles Woodson's Return to Oakland
YearMissed TacklesInterceptionsYACTotal Yards Allowed
2013161144339
2014204355512
Pro Football Focus

He surrendered the most yards after the catch (YAC) among safeties in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. His frequent missed tackles also make him a liability when stepping into the box in run support.

Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. should consider hedging Woodson's snaps in favor of preparing the next man up. The Raiders would do more harm than good by rushing him to the bench, but they cannot afford to bury their young talent at a thin position.

Raiders Thin at Safety

Brandian Ross
Brandian RossBrian Bahr/Getty Images

Brandian Ross is a well-seasoned veteran with 23 starts within the last two seasons and he’ll become an unrestricted free agent in 2016. The coaching staff should assess Dowling's progress before making a decision on whether to re-sign Ross or allow him to walk out.

Tevin McDonald is the other intriguing option at safety. The former UCLA Bruin isn’t as dangerous in forcing turnovers as Dowling, but he defends the pass effectively. He recorded 22 defended passes and four interceptions within two seasons. McDonald is an undrafted rookie who likely earns a spot on the practice squad further developing his skill set.

Larry Asante will become a restricted free agent at the end of the season, but he hasn’t shown much potential as a starter entering his fifth year in the league. Undrafted free agent Jimmy Hall won’t make it out of the summer on the Raiders roster or practice squad.

Ross vs. Dowling 

The heir to Woodson’s position is a two-horse race that starts during training camp. Ross will get most of the early opportunities, but it was Dowling flashing his coverage and return skills during mandatory minicamp, per SilverandBlackPride.com writer Levi Damien:

"Speaking of second year defensive backs, Jonathan Dowling was making plays today as well. He made life difficult for Ponder, beginning with a pass defended and later picked him off and got a decent return out of it."

Dowling brings a certain set of playmaking skills that aren’t as prominent with Ross. Allen was signed and immediately designated as the starter, which says a lot about where Ross stands in terms of climbing the depth chart regardless of his 23 starts.

As a seventh-round pick, Carrie played his way into a starting cornerback position. Dowling was selected 28 spots after Carrie and could potentially reap the same results pending his training camp performances.

None of the Raiders starting cornerbacks have a track record of picking off passes, which creates a need for both Allen and Dowling going forward in terms of forcing turnovers.

The Raiders must see what they have in the second-year safety. Dowling could save them an early 2016 draft pick on another safety if he continues to develop as a game-changer in the secondary.

You can follow Maurice Moton on Twitter for the latest news on the Raiders.

All statistics are provided by Profootball-reference.comSports-Reference.com and ESPN.com unless otherwise noted. Player roster courtesy of Raiders.comPlayer contracts courtesy of Spotrac. 

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