FOXBORO, Mass. — After seeing Chad Jackson, Brandon Tate and Taylor Price struggle to learn the intricacies of the Patriots’ offense in 2006, 2009 and 2010, respectively, it appeared a rookie outside receiver would never again contribute with Tom Brady and the Patriots’ complex offense.
But that has changed in 2013. It’s not going perfectly for Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, but it’s surely going better than expected. There have been some speed bumps along the way. After a stellar summer for Thompkins, the undrafted rookie out of Cincinnati looked lost Week 1 against the Bills. But he’s improved since and has become a consistent part of New England’s offense. It’s obvious Brady’s trust in the rookie has increased.
Dobson didn’t stand out quite as much in training camp and the preseason, but he’s already shown a knack for big plays that the Patriots sorely lacked last season. He picked up a 39-yard touchdown against the Jets in Week 2 in his first NFL snap as New England fooled New York by lining Dobson up at H-back. He also reeled off a 53-yard catch in Week 4 that could have gone for a score if he had taken a better route to the end zone.
Thompkins is on pace for 58 catches, 874 yards and 10 touchdowns. Dobson is currently projected for 534 yards on 42 receptions and three touchdowns. Those are some stellar projected numbers for two players that everyone seems to think are the reason the Patriots’ offense is struggling.
And yes, both players have had their fair share of drops. Thompkins has a tendency to body catch and Dobson has found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time on numerous occasions. But Thompkins has proven to be a solid route runner and Dobson has had a tendency to gain separation, no matter who is covering him.
The receivers are not the issue. Thompkins and Dobson aren’t forcing Brady to throw the ball at their feet or over their head. The rookies aren’t forcing Brady to hesitate in the pocket or feel pressure that isn’t there.
That’s not to say Brady has been entirely to blame for the struggles on offense either. The Patriots tried to go into this season with their eye on the present and the future. They also went into the season thinking they would have Aaron Hernandez. They may have thought they would have Rob Gronkowski and Shane Vereen, too, but injuries happen. They can’t be predicted, but they happen. Murder trials and tight ends spending time in jail typically do not.
The Patriots proved for four games they could get by with the rookie receivers. After Week 2, much of the criticism over their play diminished. But once the team lost, it’s right back to “the Patriots need to acquire a veteran receiver” — though not typically spoken or typed quite so eloquently.
The team doesn’t need to sign Terrell Owens or trade for Kenny Britt, they need to get the healthy pieces back on offense. And if those players can’t stay healthy, they’re going to need Thompkins and Dobson. This time spent in the offense as key chess pieces will be paying dividends later on.
The Patriots didn’t change their offense for the rookies. But they did finally find players who were smart enough and dedicated enough to break down the wordy, lengthy playbook.
Neither player looks like a guaranteed future star, but both have shown glimpses. They have the potential to be special, but for now, they’re more than adequate.
Signing or trading for a veteran wide receiver is not the solution. Getting Gronkowski back will be a boost. Trying to figure out how to use Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola will go a long way. Getting Vereen back will help. Getting Stevan Ridley back will improve the play action.
There’s a lot wrong with this offense right now, but there’s also more pieces missing than any normal team could surmount. And the issues don’t reside in the wide receiver room, especially the corner where Thompkins and Dobson are hanging out.
The key storyline coming out of the draft was that the Patriots would finally need to successfully develop a rookie wide receiver. They have developed two, but no one is content because the Patriots lost a game.