The offseason just keeps getting better and better for the Patriots. Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was arrested for a possible DUI on Thursday in Lincoln, Nebraska. This immediately brought out a lot of emotions throughout ‘Patriots Nation’ about the Pats, and in particular, their offseason. I know a lot of people (including myself) that made Dennard out to be an idiot and assumed he would be gone fairly quickly. However new details have emerged in the last 24 hours. Dennard’s camp came out and said that he did not fail the sobriety test. I am not going to pretend to be an expert in our legal system, and the legality of certain things (I am pretty much clueless), but it sounds like this isn’t as certain as some DUI cases are. This will make the next couple of weeks interesting for Dennard and the Pats, because the verdict on Dennard may determine his future with New England. If he is convicted of a DUI, then I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Patriots cut bait with him and sent him on his way. In fact, if he is convicted, I hope the Pats release him. The Patriots are a first class organization, and this offseason has really been a trying one for the team and their image.
Let’s now turn to a pure football perspective on this situation. I am a huge fan of Dennard. The minute he stepped on the field, I fell in love with this kids game, and I think he has a massive amount of potential. Losing him would be a big blow to the Pats, especially with their current Hernandez situation and everything that circulates around that. Dennard brought a solid presence as an outside corner to the Patriots during the 2012 season, and I thought he would achieve even greater levels of appreciation around the league, once the 2013 season was finished. One major reason I thought this would happen, was because of who the Patriots had brought in during the offseason. They signed safety Adrian Wilson, they brought back Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington, and drafted Logan Ryan in the third round of the NFL draft. All of these guys have the potential to complement each other, and form a very good secondary. If Dennard comes out innocent in this DUI case and stays in New England, then I think everything will be fine and right on track as to what most people thought coming into training camp. That thought was this defense has the capability to be great. They have a lot of talent, and they may be called upon to carry the Patriots through stretches of the 2013 season. However if Dennard is guilty, and he is either suspended by the league, or released by the Patriots, then some changes will have to be made to this defensive unit.
The main change that I think would have to be made, is the Pats would be forced to insert either Ras-I Dowling into the starting lineup, or give rookie Logan Ryan a shot at that position. In both of these cases, the Patriots defense would no longer be nearly as effective as a unit. While Dennard is a young guy, he has proven that he can play in this league, “play with the big boys”, and do it very effectively. However these other two guys are unproven players, and while they may be solid football players in the future, they haven’t done anything in their respective careers that has earned them that respect.
Ras-I Dowling was drafted by New England in the second round of the 2011 draft. He had a good deal of talent as a cornerback, and when I saw him play at Virginia, I though he already had a body that was ready for the NFL. But he has a major red flag, and that is the fact that he is extremely injury prone. The Patriots have unfortunately learned that the hard way, as he has only gotten into a total of nine games in his first two years with the Pats. When he has been in, he has flashed some of that talent that made the Patriots take a chance on him in 2011. He has shown an ability to play good man coverage, and he got his hands on a lot of balls. When you combine that with his 6’1 210 pound frame, you get a guy that has the potential to be a solid cornerback. If Dowling can stay healthy for the majority of the 2013 season, I think he can come in and make some plays for New England. But again, he is an unproven player. We honestly don’t know how he is going to play when he is forced into playing as a full time number two cornerback. Hopefully Dennard doesn’t give the Patriots the opportunity to find out what would happen with Dowling at the starting cornerback position.
Logan Ryan playing opposite Aqib Talib isn’t nearly as realistic as Dowling doing it is. The first problem is he is a rookie. In general, rookie cornerbacks don’t fare very well in this league (Obviously Dennard is an exception). Much like Dowling, Ryan has a lot of potential as a player. While at Rutgers he compiled 170 total tackles, and seven interceptions. He is a physical player, and I think he is exactly what the Patriots need in the future. But he isn’t what they need right now. Ryan is a developmental project as far as I’m concerned, and I really don’t want to see him in the starting lineup in 2013. But Dennard may force the Patriots hand in this situation. Ryan is the only player that I see on their roster other than Dowling, that could fill the whole that Dennard may leave. I could envision Ryan making a decent amount of nice plays for the Pats if he is forced to play, but I also could see him getting beat a lot. Teams will pick on him a lot for two reasons. The first is, he is a rookie, and every rookie in the NFL gets picked on. It doesn’t matter where they are drafted, every single quarterback they face will attempt to pick on them. The second reason is because of who Ryan would have opposite him. Aqib Talib is a very good cornerback, and if an offensive coordinator has the opportunity to go after a rookie, or Aqib Talib, who is a proven commodity in the NFL, he is definitely going to choose the rookie every time.
The bottom line in this little “fiasco” that Dennard has gotten the Patriots into, is if he is gone for the 2013 season, the Patriots defense will suffer a decline in effectiveness. With Dennard in the fold, they have a solid group that knows how to play together. Without Dennard, they will have someone in his place that is not experienced at all, and would most likely cost the Patriots at multiple junctures next season.