Gators in NFL: Patriots rookie Dawson may have staying power

New England Patriots second-round NFL football draft pick Duke Dawson, a cornerback out of Florida, talks with the media at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., Tuesday, May 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Stew Milne)

By Rich Garven, GateHouse Media Services

FOXBORO — There have been high expectations for Duke Dawson ever since the Patriots drafted the University of Florida cornerback in the second round with the 56th overall pick in April.

And while Dawson also has lofty goals, he’s done his best since the start of his first NFL training camp to stick to the things that got him here.

So he’s just been himself, looking to consistently do the little things correctly rather than occasionally make a big splash.

“It’s always better,” Dawson said Thursday. “Don’t try to come out here and be somebody you’re not. That’s when you start making mistakes and not doing the right thing.”

The 5-foot-10, 198-pound Dawson has been doing enough things right to frequently find himself getting snaps with the starters as the slot corner.

It’s a spot that’s his to win with Eric Rowe having been moved outside to replace the departed Malcolm Butler and fellow veteran Jonathan Jones on the mend.

“Coaches put me out here,” Dawson said. “I just come out and do what they want me to do. Just try to come out every day and learn in the meeting rooms, be focused. I’m always just trying to learn and get better.”

Dawson appeared in 48 games over four seasons at Florida, finishing his career with 82 tackles, six interceptions and an additional 17 passes defensed. He brought back three of those interceptions for touchdowns with impressive returns of 36, 37 and 48 yards.

The 22-year-old Florida native, who grew up about an hour’s drive west of the UF campus in Gainsville, was named second-team All-SEC as a senior. It was the only year he was a fulltime starter after waiting his turn behind a collection of corners that now number six current NFL players.

If Dawson ends up finding his way onto the field quickly in New England, the credit can be shared by the likes of his teammates and coaches.

Dawson praised the veteran defensive backs, a group led by returning captains Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon, for providing guidance and support as he makes the big jump up from the SEC to the AFC.

They reached out to him when he first got here and welcomed him into the fold.

“That locker room is like a family,” Dawson said. “When I first got here I didn’t know things were going to be like they were. They took me in as a little brother and I see them as big brothers and I just try to come in and improve every day.”

Then there’s coach Bill Belichick, who spent some one-on-one time with Dawson on Thursday during a segment of practice. It’s not the first time that’s happened.

And that’s a sure sign the Patriots believe they’re onto something here, unlike the numerous DBs they’ve previously drafted in the second round that were underachieving. It’s a list that includes Terrence Wheatley, Ras-I Dowling, Tavon Wilson, Cyrus Jones, and Jordan Richards.

“I mean it was great,” Dawson said of that individual time with Belichick. “Ever since I was little I always saw him on TV and to actually work with him is a great privilege and an honor.

“Like I said, I’m always willing to learn and he’s always giving me the little things, the smallest things I need to work on and it shows on the field. I feel like I’m progressing and getting better every day.”

Dawson is also receiving — and giving — help from fellow rookie cornerback JC Jackson, who was signed by the Patriots in May after not being drafted. They’re always discussing and quizzing each other on their defensive duties.

Their relationship isn’t new. They’ve known each other since high school and were teammates as freshmen at Florida in 2014 before Jackson ultimately transferred to Maryland.

“Me and JC are like brothers,” Dawson said. “I’ve always seen what he had; he’s always seen what I had. We just try to come out and compete against each other as well. Learn from each other also.”

Rich Garven writes for The Worcester Telegram & Gazette