When the Patriots entered camp, expectations for the rookie wide receivers were tempered.
That was to be expected. Very few rookie wideouts have come to Foxboro and contributed immediately. But now two veterans are gone and another has been sitting on the sideline since suffering an injury Friday.
With Donald Jones and Lavelle Hawkins released and Michael Jenkins hurt, Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce have a chance to step up and shine. And now it appears to be down to those three players and Julian Edelman to fight for the starting wide receiver spot(s) across from Danny Amendola.
It’s still unclear how the Patriots offense will align on Sept. 8 at 1 p.m. They’ll likely go with an 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers), 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers), or 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two wide receivers) depending on the opponent, situation and play. That’s what they did while Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were injured last season.
But since the Patriots will be passing more than running, it’s likely they go with the 11 personnel most frequently. That means that two wide receivers have to step up along with Amendola.
Since Amendola can play the slot or “Z” role, the Patriots will be looking for an “X” receiver and another player who can play either the slot or “Z.” Dobson looks to be strictly an “X” option at this point. He’s better as he gets further down the field and is at his strongest when he’s being forced to make a spectacular play, either in the air or on the sideline. He’ll struggle to get separation on more shallow routes since he’s not an advanced route runner and he can be slow out of his breaks.
Brady hasn’t had a wide receiver with Dobson’s skill set since another former Marshall wideout came to town, Randy Moss. That’s not to say Dobson has Moss’ talent, but they have similar size, limitations and strengths. Dobson has received playing time with the first and second teams. When the Patriots split the team into blue and white uniforms, though, Dobson was wearing blue and playing with Ryan Mallett.
The player who was lined up at the “X” with Brady in that scrimmage was Kenbrell Thompkins. Thompkins can likely play all three receiver positions. He’s been in the slot, the “X” and the “Z” during Patriots training camp. He has the size (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) and speed (4.46-second 40-yard dash at the combine) to play the “X,” the agility to play the slot (6.88-second three-cone time) and the route-running ability to play the “Z.” Thompkins has no problem gaining separation with his sharp cuts and quick feet in the middle of the field.
Boyce could probably play the “X” in a pinch, but is best served, like Amendola, in the slot or “Z.” He has consistent hands and can get open using his out-of-this-world agility (he ran the three cone at the combine in 6.68 seconds with a broken foot).
Boyce is bigger than Amendola, though, and even has the ability to carry the ball out of the backfield. He hasn’t had the chance to show this much in training camp, but he also possesses the ability to make defenders miss after the catch.
Edelman is similar to Boyce in that he can play both the slot and “Z,” he’s bigger than Amendola and he’s more dangerous after the catch. Edelman has never settled into a starting role during his four years with the Patriots, though, and might be more of an option if the rookies can’t prove themselves during the preseason.
If the season started today, Thompkins would probably have to be one of the two receivers starting next to Amendola. His versatility and consistency have caused onlookers to marvel at practice. He would also allow the Patriots to swap in Edelman, Boyce or Dobson seamlessly.
The other spot is still very much up for grabs, and it’s likely that Edelman, Boyce and Dobson will rotate in and out to begin the year. Dobson is the “deep threat” Patriots fans have clamored for ever since Moss was traded to the Vikings, but Boyce and Edelman fit Brady’s skill set in delivering accurate passes over the middle of the field better.
Unless Jenkins can come back from injury and have a fantastic remainder of the summer, it appears the Patriots will rely on the rookies, Edelman and Amendola this season. The longer Jenkins is out, the less likely he makes the 53-man roster.
The Patriots receivers have reportedly showed up well during joint practices with the Eagles, but the first real test will come on Friday in a real game situation. The wide receiver battle is still shaping up, and there are still four preseason games until it gets decided.