Dowling, 22, was considered among college football's best collegiate cornerbacks heading into the 2010 season but was limited by injury to five games last fall, dropping him out of the first round in many draft analysts' views.
Dowling totaled 160 tackles and eight interceptions in 40 games in four years for the Cavaliers and was a two-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference second-team selection.
Dowling, from Chesapeake, Va., graduated from Virginia, with a degree in sociology, in 3½ years.
New England has two other picks in the second round, the 56th and 60th, and two in the third.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.