The New England Patriots still haven’t found a starter at one of the most important offensive skill positions.
The battle for the starting “X” wide receiver in the Patriots’ offense rages on this offseason. The “X” receiver typically is a bigger player who can use size and speed to beat pressing cornerbacks. He should be the “big-play” receiver in the Patriots’ offense.
Last year, the position was held by 2013 rookies Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce at different times in the season. Now, veteran Brandon LaFell has joined the mix, and training camp and preseason will dictate who starts in Week 1.
Julian Edelman still will start in the “Z” role, and Danny Amendola is expected to hold down the slot for the second consecutive season.
Patriots roster spots and starting roles are up for grabs, and as training camp nears, NESN.com will review the team’s biggest battles. This week, we’re tackling the “X” receiver role.
Strengths: Thompkins is 6-foot-1 and uses every inch of that length to high point the football. He times his leaps well and can snatch the ball out of the air, as he proved in his game-winning catch in Week 6 of the 2013 season against the New Orleans Saints.
Thompkins already proved to be stronger than both Dobson and Boyce last season, and he bulked up to 200 pounds over the last three months.
Thompkins was the Patriots’ Week 1 starter in 2013 because of his strong route running and ability to adapt to the offense quickly.
Areas of improvement:
Thompkins isn’t as fast as Dobson or Boyce, and it shows when he’s asked to run deeper routes. Of course, Thompkins can take the top off the defense at times, as he proved against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 5. Thompkins make this catch, but it could have been an even bigger play if quarterback Tom Brady had made a better throw.
Thompkins beat the safety with a double move and had gained a three-yard lead as he was streaking past the 50-yard line. Thompkins had to slow down and backtrack for Brady’s pass, but he still made the grab using his physicality.
Thompkins was benched midway through the season when he was having trouble gaining separation and getting on the same page as Tom Brady. He was shut down by New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie in the Patriots’ Week 7 loss.
Thompkins also can struggle to pick up yards after his grabs. He showed a tendency to fall to the ground after catches when he had space in front of him.
Strengths: Dobson, a second-round draft pick in 2013, has the best size-speed combination among Patriots wide receivers, and that flashes on tape. Dobson looked Randy Moss-ish against the Pittsburgh Steelers when he screamed past cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Ryan Clark on an 81-yard touchdown.
Dobson showed a ton of improvement as the season went along, but unfortunately, a foot injury stopped his progress. That injury continues to slow him down, as he sat out organized team activities and minicamp after undergoing surgery in March.
The back-shoulder catch was one area where Dobson showed improvement, and he and Brady finally hit it for a touchdown against the Steelers.
Areas of improvement: There was a reason why Dobson earned the nickname “Dropson” during the 2013 season, as he had nine drops on 71 targets last season. Brady’s passes would hit him squarely in the hands early in the season, and Dobson wouldn’t be able to pull them in.
Dobson also could afford to add some bulk before the 2014 season. He was beaten on contested plays too often, like this one in Week 2 against the Jets. Brady’s pass could have been better, but Dobson should have been able to high point the ball over the smaller, less athletic Darrin Walls.
Strengths: Dobson has the size and Thompkins has the strength, but Boyce is the best overall athlete of the three second-year wideouts. Boyce’s after-catch ability is special, and he highlighted that ability against the Cleveland Browns in Week 14 during one of his two starts of the season.
Boyce was able to take this screen pass 38 yards by weaving his way down the field and through defenders.
Boyce used his deep speed to draw two pass interference penalties during this game, and he used his combination of agility and speed to beat his defender down the sideline on a deep pass in Week 15 against the Miami Dolphins by beating cornerback Brent Grimes with a double move.
Areas of improvement: Boyce, like Dobson, had trouble catching the football, which is a bit of a problem for a wide receiver. Boyce had four drops on just 19 targets, including three against the Dolphins alone.
Boyce’s lack of size could have him competing with Amendola for a starting role in the slot, rather than on the outside with Dobson, Thompkins and LaFell. When Boyce was on the field, it left Edelman to play the “X” role too often.
Strengths: LaFell gives the Patriots a big, versatile option over the middle of the field. He can line up outside and in the slot, and though we didn’t see it in the spring, he could even play a little “joker” tight end for the Patriots.
In the play below, LaFell beats cornerback Logan Ryan off the snap by overpowering him. LaFell can create size mismatches for smaller slot cornerbacks.
LaFell also proved that he’s willing to make tough catches over the middle for the Panthers, and despite getting hit hard, he missed just four games in his first four seasons in the NFL.
Areas of improvement:
LaFell lacks a distinct skill like Thompkins, Dobson and Boyce. He doesn’t have elite speed, which sometimes effects his ability to gain separation down the field. He also had trouble with drops in 2013. Many of his incompletions were due to his eight drops on 90 targets.
LaFell doesn’t have elite skills after the catch, which is typically a strong suit for slot receivers. LaFell had a chance to beat cornerback Aqib Talib in a one-on-one battle in the play below, and he instead retreated to the sideline.
Dobson has the skills best suited for the starting “X” receiver role, but his time away from the team due to foot surgery will hurt his ability to grab that starting role. Thompkins doesn’t have the speed or ability to separate that Dobson possesses, but he showed major improvements during OTAs and minicamp.
LaFell will find a role with the Patriots because of his versatility, but it would be a slight disappointment if he grabs a starting role over Dobson and Thompkins. Boyce likely will be relegated as a backup in the slot and “Z” receiver spots, but he could find a bigger role if and when Amendola or Edelman suffer injuries.
The starting “X” receiver role is still open, but Thompkins and Dobson have the inside track.