Deservedly or not, the cornerbacks of the New England Patriots will be under more scrutiny than any other unit during this 2012 training camp and early season. The reason for that is quite simple: the Pats allowed more passing yards than any other team all season long until the final game of the 2012 season. Though football is the ultimate team game and there are many factors that go into pass defense (e.g., pass rush, defensive scheme, safety help), those playing cornerback are going to have a bulls-eye on them when the pass defense numbers stand out in such a negative manner. As successful as the team was in 2011, it is difficult to look past some of the defensive statistics: 293.9 passing yards allowed per game (31st); 79 plays of 20 or more yards (32nd); 62.4% passes completed (23rd); 245 passing first downs (31st). With that type of a pass defense the Patriots were very fortunate to advance as far as they did, and it is an area in which is surely a focus of improvement for the coaching staff.
While the group as a whole may be under more scrutiny than any other, the player within that group that is under the most scrutiny is Devin McCourty. After being named an All-Pro as a rookie when he forced nine turnovers, he had just two picks last year as opponents were able to successfully complete passes in his direction time after time. The Pats don’t necessarily need for him to return to being an All-Pro, but they do need more production from him. McCourty seemed to struggle picking up the ball; more specifically in knowing when to turn his head (more detail on that here). A full off-season working with his coaches should help a great deal in that regard. If not then his future is likely at safety, where he – and the rest of the defense – improved quite a bit when he played there last year.
If McCourty will be the most scrutinized player on the Patriots’ roster over the next several weeks, the Ras-I Dowling will be a very close second. Even though he is in just his second there are some out there that are already declaring him to be a bust – a proclamation that would be severely premature in my opinion.
A healthy Ras-I Dowling could go a long ways to fortifying the Pats pass defense
Dowling was talented enough to be considered a prospect that would be selected in the top half of the first round had he declared for the draft after his junior season at Virginia. Leg injuries limited him to just two starts, and he was still available when the Pats had the first pick on Day Two of the draft. Rather than deal that pick, as many expected them to do, the Pats had enough faith in Dowling to select him with that pick. Last year the lockout eliminated off-sesaon training and he didn’t get his contract done until the second week of camp. He pulled his hamstring in his very first practice and missed the next three weeks. Despite the very limited camp he showed the coaching staff enough to win the starting job at right cornerback to open the season. Unfortunately he played only two games before a leg injury ended his season. As a result in the last two years he has appeared in just four games while missing 24 in that time, so it is natural that some are labeling him as injury prone.
Dowling had hip surgery in the off-season which some feel may have the residual effect of eliminating the hamstring issues that have hindered him. Athletically he is as gifted as any defensive back on the team. Dowling has the height, wingspan and speed needed to cover the opponent’s best receivers. When he is at his best there is nobody else in this unit – even McCourty – that is as talented as he is. Based on how even average quarterbacks torched the Pats secondary last year, the team desperately need for him to step up and fulfill that potential this year.
For each of the last two seasons Kyle Arrington has been penciled in as a special teams ace that could help out in the slot in nickel formations. And in each of the last two seasons he has had to take on a much larger role due to either an injury or ineffectiveness of one of his colleagues. While Arrington was named to the Pro Bowl and tied for the league lead in interceptions with seven in 2011, the Pats are much better off not having to count on him to defend against an opponent’s receiver outside the numbers. The Pats are very fortunate to have him on the squad and over achieve, but they are much better off leaving him as their slot corner. While that may not sound like it is a vital role, consider who some slot receivers are in today’s NFL (e.g., Wes Welker, Victor Cruz), and how often offenses line up with three receivers – especially when they are playing from behind, as is often the case when playing against the Patriots.
Barring injury McCourty, Dowling and Arrington are virtual locks to make the Pats 2012 roster. The team will probably break camp with five, possibly six corners; that leaves Sterling Moore, Will Allen, Alfonzo Dennard and Marquice Cole battling for two or three available roster slots. Many are high on Moore thanks to a late season interception and for breaking up the would-be touchdown pass to Lee Evans in the AFC Championship Game. While his play certainly did improve down the stretch, I just can’t forget that he is still an undrafted player whose performance resulted in his being cut four times last year. If he can consistently play at that same level then he’ll make the team.
Dennard potentially has the highest upside from that group. Some considered him to be as high as a second round talent prior to an arrest on the eve of the NFL draft caused his stock to plummet. He is considered to be more physical than some of his competition with good coverage skills, but he is going to have to show a lot in a short time frame considering the competition he faces.
Allen has been used some at safety and some consider that this may be his way onto the roster. I have spoken to some Dolphins fans and they all seem to be in agreement that Allen is not really suited for this position, saying that he is not physical enough and not that productive in run support to play the position. That’s something to keep an eye on during preseason games.
Marquice Cole is a player that many have written off as not having a chance to make the roster, but I would not be so sure of that. When predicting 53-man rosters one thing to think about is special team players as well as game day inactives. On game day there are just 46 roster spots, and you have to devote a certain number of those to kickoff coverage, kickoff returns, punt coverage and punt return teams. Cole, just like Matthew Slater and Tracy White, is a player that was signed almost exclusively for his special team capabilities. So while Will Allen may be a better cornerback, Cole may have a better chance of surviving roster cuts because of his special teams play. It would not surprise me in the least to see him on the roster in week one, especially if Dennard does not stand out in this area.
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