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Dowling’s status raises some interesting questions about Patriots’ cornerback situation

02.27.12 at 4:56 pm ET
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Where should the Patriots put Devin McCourty? (AP)

With the news that cornerback Ras-I Dowling is progressing well from his offseason hip surgery, it opens some intriguing questions about the Patriots’ cornerbacks going forward.

While there’s some talk about New England using one of their first four picks on a corner — Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick or Janoris Jenkins of North Alabama are two first-round possibilities, while Montana’s Trumaine Johnson is a second-round candidate — if the team decides Dowling is healthy enough to start the 2012 season, the Patriots might not be so inclined to pursue a cornerback in this year’s draft, at least not early on.

Dowling is an intriguing defender. Taken with the first pick of the second round in 2011, the 6-foot-1, 198-pounder started at corner in the regular-season opener against the Dolphins before getting hurt in Week 2.

“He’s a great guy and a wonderful person,” said Virginia cornerback Chase Minnifield, a college teammate of Dowling’s. “He cares about his teammates. I think he’s going to be a great player. I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people next year, for sure.”

If he was back at corner in 2012, Dowling would join a group that includes Sterling Moore and Kyle Arrington. In addition, Nate Jones and Antuwan Molden (two unrestricted free agents) remain candidates to return in 2012 for the Patriots at the position.

Dowling will also join Devin McCourty in the secondary, but the question remains: Where should McCourty play? After a Pro Bowl season as a rookie, he appeared to regress in 2011 at corner, and was moved to safety late in the season in New England’s sub packages. He certainly did not appear to be overwhelmed at free safety when he was there down the stretch and into the playoffs.

“I think they have to make a decision on McCourty,” said Greg Cosell, an NFL Films producer who breaks down game film on a weekly basis. “Because after his rookie year, you thought he might be on his way to being a top five or six corner. This was his second year, and it obviously didn’t work out that way to the point where he got moved to safety.

“I think they’re going to have to find a slot corner. Because obviously we know they played [Julian] Edelman there on the way up to the Super Bowl. They put Arrington there. They put Molden on the outside. At the end of the day, they’re still going to need a corner because I’m not sure they can consistently line up with those three as their corners if he still wants McCourty to be a safety in the sub packages. I think that would need an improvement.”

While McCourty struggled at corner at the start of the season, his former college coach believes he’ll make the adjustments necessary to succeed long-term.

“He’ll be back. There’s no doubt about it,” former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said when asked about McCourty at the NFL scouting combine. “I know he got bumped up a little bit. He’s been fortunate that that hasn’t happened to him very much in his career.

“I know one thing,” Schiano added. “If he didn’t play at the level that he did the year before, it had something to do with it, because he’s as committed a football player in his preparation and the way he takes care of himself physically that I’ve been around. So he’ll be back.”

Read More: Antuwan Molden, Chase Minnifield, Devin McCourty, Dre Kirkpatrick
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