If there’s one position on defense with the most volatility it’s by far the cornerbacks.
Based on talent, the group should be much improved.
But in the NFL, talent doesn’t always win on Sundays.
Headlining the cornerbacks is third-year pro Devin McCourty. The former first-round pick struggled mightily in 2011 after earning a Pro Bowl nod as a rookie.
A former standout at Rutgers, McCourty brings a solid size and speed package to the field and is noted for his work on special teams.
Last season, he looked sluggish and battled through some injuries. His inconsistent coverage skills at corner, combined with a lack of depth, resulted in a late-season move to safety for McCourty.
By all accounts, he’s looked improved this offseason, although there haven’t been any glowing reviews. The team desperately needs him to be good, not even great, this year.
Although Kyle Arrington tied for the league lead with seven interceptions, it appears Ras-I Dowling—the top pick in the second round last year—will start on the outside.
This is an encouraging sign for the second-year corner, as he lost most of his rookie season to a hip injury.
Dowling brings excellent length and ball skills, although he doesn’t have the same speed prior to his injury.
At 6’1”, 210 pounds, he has the physical skills to develop into one of the league’s better corners.
Rounding out the top three is Arrington. Now in his fourth year in the league, he has quietly ascended into one of the better players on the defense.
Last season, he displayed good ball skills (seven picks, 15 passes defended) and racked up 88 tackles.
His quickness and size make him better suited for the slot, but he should definitely be on the field a lot this year.
The other two corners listed on the Patriots roster include special teams demon Marquice Cole and seventh-round draft pick Alfonzo Dennard.
Cole doesn’t see a lot of snaps on defense, but is a big part of the kicking game.
However, Dennard is a guy who could find himself on defense, provided he recovers from a hamstring injury suffered early in training camp.
Although he went in the seventh round, Dennard was projected to be a day-two pick based on his talent and production at Nebraska.
His hopes of getting drafted early were derailed with a postseason arrest and a poor showing at the Senior Bowl.
Many draft analysts lauded the Patriots for taking a flier on Dennard, and the former Cornhusker could pay big dividends in the near future.
Overall, the Patriots didn’t upgrade significantly at a position which many people thought was their weakest last season.
The team appears to be banking on a rebound year from McCourty and improved health from Dowling. I’m not 100 percent sold on either, but if both corners play up to their potential, the pass defense could take a tremendous leap forward in 2012.