Today we look at cornerback Ras-I Dowling. The 25-year old is 6'1" and 210 pounds and was a second round pick for the New England Patriots in 2011. However, he was released before the 2013 season after a series of injuries limited him over his first few years. The Jets signed him to their practice squad in October and signed him to a futures contract at the end of the season.
After the jump, I look in detail at footage from Dowling's career so far to evaluate some of his strengths and weaknesses.
Who is Ras-I Dowling?
Dowling was a great athlete in high school, playing defensive back, wide receiver and even some quarterback. He was recruited to Virginia where he was a second team all-ACC selection in 2009 and a preseason second team all-American in 2010. However, an ankle injury limited him to five games in his senior season. After he ran an unexpectedly-fast 4.40 at the scouting combine, many sources had him listed as a potential first round pick, but New England were able to take him with the first pick of the second round.
Despite missing the first three preseason games as a rookie, Dowling was an opening day starter at right cornerback. However, in week two, he suffered a hip injury in the first half, ending his season. In his second season, he started off as the third cornerback, playing on the outside in nickel packages on opening day. However, over the next five weeks, we was relegated to dime corner, playing in the slot and getting just 24 snaps in five games. In week seven (against the Jets) he had a much more significant role, but then suffered another season ending injury, this time to his thigh. He was released at the end of preseason in 2013 after another unspecified injury caused him to miss all four preseason games.
Let's look at his numbers from his career so far:
10 tackles, three missed tackles
One pass defensed
Coverage numbers: 10-16-123 yards
Completion percentage: 62.5%
Yards per attempt: 7.7
QB rating: 86.2
(Some statistics in this article are provided courtesy of Pro Football Focus.)
Now let's briefly recap his performance from 2011 and 2012:
Despite missing the first three games, Dowling played a significant role in the final preseason game against the Giants and won a starting job for the opener. He had three tackles and a quarterback hit. He did give up a couple of catches, one downfield as he stumbled when the receiver made his break to the outside and another on third and six when he was playing too far off. On one running play he showed good physicality by knocking his blocker on his backside to go and pursue the ball. There was also a play where the quarterback's initial option to his left was not open, so he looked towards Dowling's man. However, Dowling had made an effective jam at the line and was right up on the receiver, so the quarterback ran out of time and was sacked on a delayed blitz up the middle.
2011 Week One - at Miami
Miami wasted no time at all in going after Dowling, who was in man coverage on Brandon Marshall on the first play of the game. Chad Henne threw a quick-drop deep fade and Marshall was able to catch the slight underthrow for 25 coming back to the ball. Dowling was right with Marshall down the sideline, but didn't get his head turned around in time to anticipate the underthrow. They later targeted him again, hitting Devone Bess for 26 on a slant route where Dowling was too far off and then missed his tackle from behind. However, Dowling was targeted four more times and did not give up another catch.
On one play, they tried to hit Marshall at the goal line, but Dowling closed to hit him in the back as the ball arrived, forcing a drop. On another, they threw a fade to Brian Hartline on fourth and goal at the one and Dowling was draped all over him as a slight overthrow fell incomplete. Dowling again never got his head turned though. That was a big play because it would have cut the score to 31-24 but Tom Brady threw a 99-yard touchdown pass on the next snap to make it a 38-17 game.
Dowling did have one penalty, on a play where he let Hartline get an outside release and couldn't resist grabbing him. The throw in the other direction was completed anyway, so this was declined. He ended up with two tackles, including one on a play where he came off his man and chased the receiver out of bounds on a short pass. He also gave up an 11-yard catch on 2nd and 13, closing to make the tackle on the completion in front of him, but this was negated by a penalty.
Week Two - v San Diego
Dowling was targeted once here, with Malcolm Floyd coming down with a 23-yard catch in a crowd. From watching the film, it seems harsh to mark down Dowling on this play as he had safety support deep and seemed to pass Floyd off. He had one tackle and made another in run support downfield on a negated run. He was injured before halftime on a play where he was not involved in the action.
Dowling made a couple of starts in preseason in 2012 and ended up with 11 tackles and a pass defensed. In the first game against the Saints, he made a couple of good plays, preventing Chris Ivory from bouncing a run outside and coming up to wrench the ball away from a running back underneath to cause an incompletion. In the next game, he didn't get exploited in coverage but was in on a few tackles, including one on special teams. He did struggle to get off a block on one screen pass, but did force the receiver outside and eventually made the tackle. The third game saw him give up a 10 yard catch as he was playing off but closed into tight coverage and almost deflected the pass. He also assisted on a tackle in the flat. Finally, in the fourth game, he came off his man to make a good tackle on a tight end underneath then had another open field tackle in the two minute drill. He gave up a couple of short catches underneath where he was in tight coverage.
2012 Week One - at Tennessee
In this game, Dowling was targeted four times and gave up four catches. However, they only totaled 30 yards. On the longest of these Dowling was playing press coverage. He jammed the receiver, giving up an inside release and disrupting his route, but the quarterback was able to adjust and hit him in stride going across the middle and Dowling's missed tackle led to a 17 yard gain. He gave up another 12 on a 2nd and 17 play where he bailed at the snap and was giving up the easy yardage underneath. Another was just a four yard dump off in front of him. The last one was a great play by Dowling as the Titans were backed up near their goal line and tried to run a wide receiver screen. Dowling anticipated well and closed quickly before the slot receiver could block him to wrap him up the ball carrier and bring him down in the end zone. The receiver got forward progress, so it wasn't a safety, but the play lost three yards.
Dowling had four tackles in all and was also flagged for defensive pass interference on a play where the receiver made an inside break and Dowling grabbed him from behind at the marker.
Week Two - Week Six
Dowling didn't see any action at all on defense in week two and was used sparingly over the next four games. The most action he saw was 10 snaps against the Broncos in week five. In week three, he played just four snaps and did give up a first down catch but it was negated by a penalty. On the play, he was playing in the slot and the tight end ran faked an out-route and then circled back inside, although Dowling was all over him as the ball arrived. In week four, he played five snaps and targeted once, making the tackle for a short gain on a screen pass, although the runner did slip. In the Denver game, he gave up a seven yard pass on second and 10, keeping the play in front of him and making the immediate tackle. He also assisted on a tackle downfield. He played just five snaps in week six and was not targeted.
Week Seven - v New York Jets
In this game, Dowling was given a more substantial role, but then suffered a season ending injury after having played 22 snaps. He was called for two penalties and had a costly missed tackle, but did make a couple of nice plays in coverage. The only catch he gave up was on a third down play where he was keying Dustin Keller across the field and looked to have him wrapped up short of a first down, only for Keller to slip his tackle and dive for the marker. His first penalty was also on Keller as he was playing very physical coverage and did appear to grab him slightly as he made his break on a throw down the middle. He also made contact as the ball arrived. The second was meaningless, as it was away from the ball on a play that went for a first down anyway. This looked dubious as he was called for holding Stephen Hill at the line.
Dowling did a good job on two throws to Chaz Schilens. One, on third down, saw him do a good job of making contact within five yards and then disrupting the in-route by getting his hand in ahead of the throw. The other was on a throw to the end zone as he was draped all over the receiver's back on a quick slant.
Here's my observations from watching the footage, divided into categories:
Dowling mostly played at right cornerback in the regular season action he saw, other than in the 2012 season where he was relegated to a slot role in dime sets. He has also played plenty of left cornerback in preseason action.
Dowling is a physical corner and seemed to be in tight coverage most of the time, even on plays where he gave up a catch. He seemed to make strides from year one to year two in terms of getting his head turned around. When playing off coverage, he would sometimes leave too much of a cushion, but not as often as - or to the same extent as - most young players. There were no real examples of him being badly beaten, which is impressive.
Pre-draft scouting reports on Dowling suggested he would excel more in a zone-based or Tampa 2 style scheme because he lacked elite speed, but his 4.40 forty yard dash at the combine raised some eyebrows. His recovery speed, thought to be a weakness, does seem to be pretty good and he can run with his man well on the intermediate and underneath routes. Interestingly, rather than run with his man on a go-route, there were times when Dowling would pass his man off to a deep safety and pick up a safety value underneath or in the flat instead. That's obviously a scheme-based decision from the Patriots to play zone, but I'd say it has more to do with the coverage abilities of their deep safety (Devin McCourty, a converted corner) than being specifically designed to mask any deficiencies in Dowling's ability to run stride for stride.
With excellent size - he's basically the same as or bigger than every safety on the Jets roster apart from Brandon Hardin - Dowling can be extremely physical and is often, albeit not always, employed in press coverage. He does a good job of disrupting routes and getting a jam at the line, but occasionally risks a flag by being a bit too hands-on. He didn't do too much in terms of tackle numbers, but certainly didn't shy away from contact.
Operating mainly on the outside unless it was a passing down, there weren't many chances for Dowling to get involved in run support. He did make a few downfield tackles on longer runs. There was one play where he got in on a tackle on a run up the middle, but the runner was able to push the pile for a short yardage conversion.
Dowling did miss a couple of tackles, but these were really due to being a step behind his receiver in coverage rather than poor technique. Where he did make tackles, he seemed to be relatively solid with two of the more impressive ones seeing him stop a tight end in his tracks in the open field and wrapping up Ivory on the edge and hauling him to the ground, nearly causing a fumble. He did seem to take good angles.
Dowling has never blitzed in an NFL regular season game and only had one sack in four years in college. However, he did blitz once from left cornerback in a preseason game, hitting the quarterback unblocked off the edge and forcing a deliberate throw away out of bounds. With his size and speed, he could be useful in such situations in some of Rex Ryan's blitz packages.
Dowling did manage to get his hands on a couple of balls in the footage I watched and helped disrupt a couple of passes with good timing. In college, he showed an ability to pick off passes, with eight in his first three seasons, but he doesn't have an interception at any level since 2009.
Dowling's instincts were something that were identified as one of his main strengths in pre-draft scouting reports. He showed evidence of that here, coming off his man when appropriate to make a tackle or jump on another route. I didn't see any examples of him blowing an assignment.
I wouldn't say Dowling was especially demonstrative, but did get fired up when he made a play and did protest when flagged, which is of course the Patriot Way.
Dowling didn't make many special teams contributions. In one preseason game he did chase across the field to force a runner out of bounds at the 25 in kickoff coverage and in another he recovered a fumble by Julian Edelman while operating as the vice on the punt return unit. However, that didn't ultimately matter because Edelman had been interfered with - by a gunner who had blown by Dowling in the first place. With his injury history, the Jets might shy away from using him on special teams altogether.
This is the key, as Dowling missed most of his senior year with an ankle injury, suffered season ending hip and thigh injuries in 2011 and 2012 and then got hurt again in camp in 2013 with what I believe was a leg injury, but the Patriots never disclosed details.
I can't find any reports of off-field issues for Dowling.
Once again, this comes down to whether Dowling can get himself healthy, which frankly - given his recent history - doesn't seem very likely.
However, if that does happen, Dowling actually might have more upside than any of these recent reclamation projects the Jets have signed. New England have thrown a lot of resources at the cornerback position in the past few years, trying to find a decent mix, so it's not necessarily a reflection on his ability levels that Bill Belichick and his staff lost patience with his inability to stay on the field. The Patriots have jettisoned defensive backs in the past that have gone on to display competence elsewhere, including Darius Butler - a 2009 second rounder who has done a solid job with the Colts over the past two years following a year with the Panthers.
Reports from last summer suggest that Dowling was working with the first unit and many of the New England coaches wanted him to start opposite Aqib Talib and ahead of Alfonzo Dennard last year, only for his injury to shunt him back down the depth chart and ultimately off the roster. The fact that the Jets have had him in their system for over six months means that they should have a good idea about his physical condition and the chances of him remaining healthy.
From the footage I watched, I'd say Dowling was impressive but perhaps more from a potential standpoint than in terms of the actual results he had. One of the most intriguing things was that he showed some clear improvements from year one to year two (and may have made further strides in his third year if the reports about him being a potential starter are accurate).
It's too soon to close the book on Dowling's career, as he clearly has the potential to be a starter-level player at the NFL level. Whether the Jets will be the ones that benefit from him finally being able to remain healthy and regain the impetus in his career development remains to be seen, but this is at the very least a nice piece they've added into the mix.