With the 33rd pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots selected Ras-I Dowling, the cornerback out of Virginia. The pick came as a surprise for a couple of reasons. The first, and most obvious, is that most fans and experts expected the Patriots to trade out of the first pick in the second round. The second reason is that cornerback wasn't seen as a position of need, as the Patriots already had five players under contract for 2011 who figured to make the team at the position.
Although cornerback was not a need, I still really like this pick. As a senior in 2010, Dowling played only five games (starting two) due to a multitude of injuries. Heading into his senior year, he was projected by most experts as a mid-first round pick.
If he can remain healthy, Dowling could be a great selection. At over 6'1" and 198 lbs, Dowling has great size for the cornerback position. In addition to that size he has long arms; he also surprised many by running a 4.4 flat 40 yard dash at the combine, and shows nice fluidity for a player of his size. He does not have the greatest ball skills or recovery speed, but his eight career interceptions shows he has some future potential as a ball hawk. He's also comfortable in both press and zone coverage, both instinctive and strong. He rarely gets caught out of position. In terms of a pure talent perspective, Dowling is right up there with Peterson, Amukamara, and Jimmy Smith as one of the most talented cornerbacks in the draft.
The question now is, where does Dowling fit? Currently, the Patriots have second year man Devin McCourty and veteran Leigh Bodden slotted as the two starting outside cornerbacks. Kyle Arrington started most of last year on the outside, but no matter what his role is, he should be a key special teams player. Darius Butler, a second round pick in 2009, struggled as a starter in 2010, is returning to the team in 2011 but could be in jeopardy of a roster spot. Jonathan Wilhite, the starting nickel cornerback before going down with injury last season, is also returning and may also be fighting for his roster life.
What's interesting with Dowling is that his best fit with the Patriots is as an outside cornerback. Personally, I see him as the heir apparent to Leigh Bodden. The thing is, Bodden has three years remaining on his contract, and assuming he has recovered well from his rotator cuff surgery, should have a few good years left. Devin McCourty was phenomenal as a rookie, earning All-Pro honors, and is the only guarantee to be in the starting lineup for the next 5+ years. Therefore, there figures to be a logjam of outside cornerbacks. What could the Patriots do about that? For one, they could play either Bodden or Dowling at safety at times. Both have the size, run support ability, instincts, and intelligence to do so. The other option is that when the Patriots bring their nickel package onto the field, they have Devin McCourty slide into the slot position. McCourty is an elite all-around cornerback, and I think he would be better in the slot than Dowling, Bodden, or the incumbents Pat Chung and Jonathan Wilhite (and I suppose Butler and Arrington).
This should all make for some interesting discussion as the offseason goes on, and certainly will create for some great competition when training camp rolls around.
Pick Grade: B