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Dowling is a Patriot on the spot

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / June 15, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH - With the conclusion of the mandatory minicamp Thursday, the Patriots have closed up shop for the offseason.

When they return to the field the final week of July for training camp, preparations will ramp up for a season with expectations of a fourth Super Bowl title.

They should not be any lower.

This team, for the most part, is locked and loaded after a busy player-acquisition period that left it with more ways to attack opponents on each side of the ball, and with much greater depth than last season, when Bill Belichick patchworked an AFC championship squad together.

Belichick the general manager has set up Belichick the coach for success. The Patriots won’t be hoping against hope with the likes of Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco this time.

There is, however, much to be worked out on the defensive side of the ball, particularly in the secondary. And the ceiling of the unit could rest on the 6-foot-2-inch shoulders of cornerback Ras-I Dowling.

There will probably be no more scrutinized player in training camp, and he’s ready for that.

“Absolutely,’’ Dowling said. “Everybody should come out there with that attitude. That’s why I’m eager for this training camp. Do what I can do to help the team, and when the season comes around, do the same thing.’’

Expectations are always unfair for a player - they don’t draft themselves - but, the fact is, Dowling is on the spot.

In the 2011 draft, the Patriots sat in the enviable position of having the first pick in the second round. It was the first time the NFL held a three-day draft, with the first round on a Thursday.

That meant the Patriots had all night to sleep on the pick - and to field trade offers. They received offers, but when it came time for the selection, Belichick decided to “pick the player.’’

That was Dowling.

There was less information on Dowling than other players, because he had basically missed his senior season at Virginia (five games, two starts) with various leg injuries.

The Patriots relied on his junior game film (which was terrific), the word of former Virginia coach and Belichick colleague Al Groh, and cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer, who worked Dowling out.

“I think the first thing was intelligence,’’ Boyer said when asked what stood out about Dowling. “I think he was very football-smart.

“I think he’s a very down-to-earth guy. I think he fits in well here with what we do. He has some height that can be beneficial covering some taller receivers and stuff, and he had good speed, good instincts and he was physical. You could see that on film that he was physical.’’

The lockout wiped out any offseason work Dowling might have done with the team. And then he and the team didn’t come to contract terms until the second week of training camp.

In his first practice, Dowling pulled his hamstring, and he was out 20 days, missing the first two exhibition games. He returned to practice Aug. 22, sat out the third exhibition, then played against the Giants in the preseason finale.

Despite having only a week of practice and one game under his belt, Dowling started at right cornerback the first two games of the season.

That’s how much the Patriots thought of him.

Another leg injury had him on the inactive list for three of the next four games (he didn’t play in the other), before Dowling landed on injured reserve and wound up having hip surgery.

Between his final season in college and his rookie season with the Patriots, Dowling started four of a possible 28 games.

Players go through rough injury stretches. It happens, and many have long and healthy careers. But with Dowling, the worry is that it’s a pattern.

As a high school junior, he broke his hand. As a senior, he battled a knee injury. In his freshman year in college, Dowling missed a showdown against Southern Cal with a hamstring injury and left the North Carolina game with a back ailment.

Dowling had no injuries in 2009, before hamstring and knee injuries plus a broken ankle wiped out his final six games as a senior. A hamstring injury ended Dowling’s scouting combine after one run of the 40-yard dash.

What does Dowling say to those who feel he is injury-prone?

“Nothing, just prove them wrong,’’ he said. “You can’t be worried about what somebody’s got to say. I’m out here playing, so I’m just worried about what I can do to help the team, and that’s all I can do right now.’’

There is reason for optimism. Those around Dowling feel the hip surgery not only fixed the torn tendon but addressed his lingering hamstring issues. He is still a work in progress at this point, however.

“He’s pushing through, trying to get back into game shape,’’ Boyer said. “It’s basically two years since he’s really played a full season, so there’s a lot of things that he’s working through there. And, again, he’s improving on some things and there’s some things that we still need to get him kind of up to speed a little bit with him coming back and just getting himself game-ready.’’

Dowling said he’s still rehabbing and working with the trainers to prepare for this season.

“Doing what I have to do stretching-wise and everything else, so I think that will take care of itself,’’ he said.

When a player goes through an injury stretch, he has to recover not only physically but mentally. The Patriots will be pushing Dowling in training camp to break through. At some point, he is going to have to trust his hip and hamstring, and cut it loose.

“Yeah, mentally you have to push yourself,’’ he said.

The Patriots desperately need Dowling to be at full strength. You don’t draft players 33d overall to sit on the sideline. With his height, long arms and a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash, he has the rare physical tools needed to eliminate the top receivers from other teams. No one else in the New England secondary has his length and explosion.

Having Devin McCourty and Dowling as the starting left and right corners, respectively, would put Kyle Arrington back in his appropriate spot as the slot corner in nickel. Or the Patriots could move McCourty to safety and pair Dowling and Arrington. Dowling has worked more at left corner to give him versatility, but at the moment he is battling Sterling Moore and likely Alfonzo Dennard for the nickel corner spot.

Dowling realizes the expectations that come with his draft position.

“Obviously, when they drafted me, they were expecting things out of me, and I’m expecting to bring a lot of things to the team, too,’’ Dowling said. “I think we’re both on the same page.’’

That’s good, because come July, the Patriots will begin gunning for a Super Bowl title. They won’t win one in this pass-happy league without a better secondary. A healthy Dowling would be a big piece of that puzzle.

After two years on the shelf, Dowling is driven to be a factor this season.

“Oh yes,’’ he said. “If you don’t have that burning [desire] inside to come out here and get better and play in the games, I mean, I feel like you shouldn’t even be out here. I think not playing those two years just made me want it more this year.

“I’m going to continue to train hard when I go home, and when I come back hopefully I will be in even better shape than I am now.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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