FOXBOROUGH — No matter which way Eric Rowe turns while at his locker, he’s facing a McCourty. To his right is Devin; to his left, Jason.
Who better to be wedged between as a young defensive back than the McCourty twins? And who better to help settle brotherly disputes than the often-smiling Rowe?
“We like E-Rowe right in between,’’ said Devin. “He’s like the referee, right in the middle.’’
Regulating quarrels is hardly Rowe’s most important job with the Patriots. But his placement in the locker room has helped him grow immensely.
Rowe was drafted out of Utah by the Philadelphia Eagles in the second round in 2015, armed with plenty of upside but questions surrounding his durability. Immediately he was thrust into a funky situation, playing for the Chip Kelly, the controversial Eagles coach in his last of three seasons running the team.
“That was my rookie year so I didn’t really know anything,’’ said Rowe. “Being in Chip Kelly’s system, it was more fast, speed, up-tempo, go-go. Here it’s kind of more like longer, grind-it-out type of days.’’
Rowe certainly doesn’t harbor any ill will toward Kelly, and he played in all 16 games as a rookie. Yet that wasn’t enough to keep him in the City of Brotherly Love once Kelly got fired.
In the days leading up to the 2016 season, Rowe was shipped to New England for a 2018 fourth-round pick. It took time for Rowe to acclimate to a new system, but he began to catch on, starting seven of the nine games in which he appeared.
Entering 2017, it appeared Rowe might be primed to take over the full-time starting role opposite Malcolm Butler. Then, Stephon Gilmore was signed, relegating Rowe back to work in nickel and dime packages.
Though his role had been diminished, Rowe sought out his positional counterpart, internalizing pointers that would help him achieve his goals.
“I’ll ask [Stephon] little questions every now and then because obviously he knows,’’ said Rowe. “Just to play alongside him and the other [guys] in the secondary, Devin and Duron [Harmon], it’s great just for me to keep learning.’’
It wasn’t for lack of knowledge, but instead an injury that slowed Rowe last season. Again, he flashed glimpses of potential, replacing Butler and Gilmore at points early in the regular season when the two faltered. Again, circumstance intervened, this time in the form of a torn groin.
He missed eight weeks.
“Last year was tough, going through the groin injury, pulling it, then coming back and still kind of recovering,’’ said Rowe.
“This year I’ve made an emphasis to not have pulled muscles. I stretch more, I do more stuff with my body to try to get through the whole 16-game season.’’
With Butler now in Tennessee, the 25-year-old Rowe has a chance to take undisputed ownership of a starting role.
He was stout all preseason, with his physical and effective brand of press coverage. Though doubts still linger regarding Rowe’s ability to track lightning-quick receivers downfield on deep routes, it’ll be No. 25 standing alongside Gilmore, McCourty, and Harmon on the first defensive snap on Sunday against Houston.
Rowe’s importance is further amplified because of the recent hamstring injury suffered by rookie corner Duke Dawson. New England still has cornerback depth behind Gilmore and Rowe, but that can fade in the blink of an eye or the rupturing of a tendon.
Is Rowe fit to handle such hefty responsibilities?
Just ask the man sitting next to him.
“It’s been fun . . . just to get to know him as a person,’’ said Devin McCourty.
“Guys love playing with each other, communicating. All that comes with hanging out off the field and doing different things. To me, I’ve just seen him grow.
“He’s not a rookie anymore. He’s not in his second year just traded to a new team. He’s a corner for the Patriots who has played a lot of meaningful football for us, and I think he just continues to get better.’’