Free-agent fit: Cornerback

First in a series on free-agent fits at various positions leading into the start of free agency March 12.

Position: Cornerback

Players under contract for 2013: Alfonzo Dennard, Ras-I Dowling, Malcolm Williams

Level of need: High

Projected top targets: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Eagles), Sean Smith (Dolphins), Aqib Talib (Patriots)

Why Rodgers-Cromartie fits: At 6-foot-2 and 182 pounds, he has length to create issues for opposing receivers and is a top-notch athlete. Rodgers-Cromartie, who was traded to the Eagles in 2011 as part of the deal in which Arizona acquired quarterback Kevin Kolb, also has proven ball skills (16 career interceptions). He turns 27 in April.

Why Smith fits: Watch any Patriots-Dolphins game and it isn’t often that the receiver Smith is covering is open. At 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds, Smith is a bigger corner who plays strong at the line of scrimmage but has athleticism to cover in the deep part of the field as well. He turns 26 in July.

Why Talib fits: He was a difference-maker for the Patriots after being acquired in a midseason trade because of his ability to match up competitively in man coverage, even though he was playing through a hip injury. It makes sense to think that there is a greater comfort level with Talib (6-1, 205) for Bill Belichick and his staff because they had a chance to work with him. He turned 27 in February.

Other names of note: Kyle Arrington (Patriots), Derek Cox (Jaguars), Travis Daniels (Chiefs), Quentin Jammer (Chargers), Mike Jenkins (Cowboys), Greg Toler (Cardinals)

Market conditions: This is a good crop of free-agent cornerbacks, which could grow deeper if the Eagles release Nnamdi Asomugha and the Panthers let go of Chris Gamble. It’s a case where opportunity matches need for the Patriots, and part of what stands out is the relative youth of some of the top players hitting the market. They are in their prime years. If the Patriots jump out early in the market, the feeling here is that this is the position to watch.

Questions to answer at position: Does Talib return as the No. 1 corner? ... What happens with Dennard, the team’s No. 2 corner, after he was convicted in February of assaulting a police officer (from a 2011 incident in Nebraska before he was drafted)? ... Can they afford to keep Devin McCourty at safety (instead of corner), where he looks like a better fit? ... Does slot corner Kyle Arrington receive a can’t-refuse-it offer for starter money elsewhere? ... Will Ras-I Dowling avoid injury and flash the potential that the Patriots saw in making him a high second-round draft choice in 2011?

YOUR TURN: Which of these would you like to see in a Patriots uniform? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this blog entry.