FOXBORO -- One of the more intriguing scheme decisions the Patriots will have to make this season affects the cornerbacks.
One corner spot is locked down by Devin McCourty, it seems. His 2011 season-to-forget was presumably an aberration.
The other spot? Well, it looks like the first man up is Ras-I Dowling.
The 2011 second-round pick "fits the suit," so to speak.
"Big, long arms, athletic; played the ball well and ran well (at Virginia)," said Patriots personnel man Nick Caserio when asked what's appealing about the 6-1, 200-pounder.
Caserio later noted, "I think if you look at the league there are a lot of bigger corners that are playing Antonio Cromartie. There are a lot of players that are long and have length. Sean Smith down in Miami is 6-foot-3 or 6-4. So part of that is youre playing against some bigger receivers, so there is a size element that comes into play. But there are different sizes and different types of defensive backs. In the end their effectiveness is going to be based on how they can actually execute the defense, execute their skill set and actually go out there and perform at the highest level possible."
One of those "different types" is Kyle Arrington. While Dowling's long and lean, Arrington's built like an armadillo -- short, a little squat and thickly muscled. But effectiveness at the NFL level was long ago established by Arrington, who is 5-10, 196 pounds.
"Kyle, hes put together well, now," Caserio reminded. "Hes maybe a little bit short, but hes strong, hes got good playing speed; very mentally tough. Theres a guy thats really improved form the time that he started here he started on the practice squad. Hes put in a lot of work and its really a credit to him and the coaching staff that hes been able to make himself into a pretty good player."
So well that when Dowling went down early last season after being handed the starter's spot opposite McCourty, Arrington came on and tied for the NFL lead in interceptions.
That was the second straight season in which Arrington was a better-than-average NFL corner.
The Patriots have thrown snake eyes with DB draft picks a number of times. Darius Butler and Terrence Wheatley were both second-rounders who couldn't get it done in recent years. Dowling? Honestly, who knows for sure?
Dowling may have the length and speed to present a better physical matchup than Arrington, but Arrington's strength, recovery speed and leaping ability have made it so that he's rarely exploited. Nobody's seen if Dowling and his longer frame can play as well.
The question may become moot anyway. With the Patriots' self-scouting telling them that they are in five DB sets more than 60 percent of the time, there's a need for three corners on the field anyway. That would mean McCourty, Dowling and Arrington with the quicker Arrington covering the slot.
We know he can do that. And cover outside. Dowling, meanwhile, has to start building a resume. If he's better than Arrington, the Patriots are that much more potent at the back end. If he's not, the Patriots may have a long, lean, fast defensive back that can't be trusted. Again.