FOXBOROUGH — NFL training camp can be a thankless period for defensive backs. Offense is more seductive than defense, and no play prompts more croons from onlookers than the deep ball.
If a cornerback does his job, swatting away the ball before it reaches the outstretched hands of an awaiting receiver, fans let out sighs of disappointment.
“Obviously if we hear that, ‘awwww,’ moment, it’s kind of good because it means we made a play,’’ said Ryan Lewis, a second-year cornerback for the New England Patriots who has yet to appear in an NFL regular-season contest.
Making plays and inducing groans has been a daily summer routine for the Patriots’ green cornerback tandem of Lewis and rookie Duke Dawson. While Dawson, a second-round pick (56th overall) out of Florida, is all but a lock to make the 53-man roster, Lewis’s spot is a tad more tenuous, reliant on outside factors such as injuries and special teams needs to go along with his own play.
Still, both are making cases for regular playing time through an unwavering focus on the little things.
“[It’s] all mental,’’ said Dawson. “You have to know where to be, when to be. That’s one thing that I feel like is a big transition [for] guys coming from college to the NFL.’’
Dawson was groomed for professional football in the SEC, appearing in 48 games for the Gators from 2014-2017. After waiting three seasons behind a smattering of future pros, Dawson snatched a starting spot in his senior season as Florida’s premier slot cornerback.
“Ball is ball anywhere you go,’’ he said, unwilling to posit his conference above the others. “You’re going to have great competition in the SEC, week in and week out, but you just have to come out and be the best you can be.’’
Standing 5 feet, 10 inches with a compact 198-pound frame, Dawson excels in press coverage as reflected by numbers during a senior season in which he was named second-team All-SEC. In 2017, Dawson snared four interceptions and allowed a paltry 37.1 passer rating against.
He finished his Florida career with 82 tackles and three pick-sixes of longer than 35 yards.
“That’s all I did at Florida was press,’’ Dawson said. “It depends on if it was a long down and distance, we’d play different coverages, but other than that I was always press.’’
Some, such as Dawson, willingly offer a window into the headspace of an NFL cornerback as he grinds through training camp.
What minute details are most integral to spawning big plays? For Dawson, it’s all about getting leverage.
“[If] I’m in the run game, making sure I’m leveraging the ball right,’’ Dawson offered as his primary focus. “[In] pass protection, making sure I have my proper leverage. Just little stuff like that.’’
Others, such as Lewis, aren’t as forthcoming.
“I try to stress the little things as much as I can,’’ he said. “I tend to keep them to myself. As long as I do everything right, work my technique, then I’m going to be in better shape to make a play on the ball.’’
Lewis went unselected in the 2017 draft after four seasons at Pittsburgh. The 6-foot, 195-pound corner spent his first professional summer at Arizona Cardinals’ camp before signing with the Patriots’ practice squad in September. Though Lewis never appeared in game action, he was named “Patriot of the Year’’ for his demeanor and his drive as a member of the alternate unit.
Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe project as New England’s two starting corners. Dawson is a near roster lock. Fellow CBs Jonathan Jones and Cyrus Jones are currently on the physically unable to perform list, leaving Lewis to compete with Jason McCourty, Keion Crossen, Jomal Wiltz, and J.C. Jackson for the remaining slots on the 53-man.
If Lewis continues to impress as he did last week, picking off a Tom Brady pass in Monday’s practice held for season ticket holders at Gillette Stadium, it’ll be tough to relegate him back to his 2017 home.
“I’m not really thinking about whether I make the 53, whether I make the practice squad,’’ said Lewis. “I just have to go out there and show I can play every single day.’’
No matter the final outcome, it’s increasingly obvious both Lewis and Dawson are gaining much in the way of wisdom from the years of experience that surround them each morning.
“[Camp] is everything that I expected,’’ said Dawson. “It’s a great group of guys all across the board: offense to defense to special teams. Just being around a lot of professional guys that are going to show you the way, I’m always ready to come in and work.’’