FOXBORO, Mass. — New England Patriots wide receiver Phillip Dorsett has to make a major leap in his second year with the team. The Patriots have no other choice but to make Dorsett their No. 2 receiver behind Chris Hogan for the first four weeks of the season while Julian Edelman is serving a four-game suspension.
Jordan Matthews, Kenny Britt and Malcolm Mitchell all were released, and Eric Decker retired. Cordarrelle Patterson is more of a gadget player, and Dorsett is well ahead of other receivers on the Patriots’ depth chart.
And here’s the good news: Dorsett is ready for it. He feels it. Patriots coaches feel it. Even quarterback Tom Brady has been complimentary of the 25-year-old wide receiver.
It’s OK if you’re skeptical right now. You’re probably thinking, “Wait. This guy had 12 catches on 18 targets for 194 yards with no touchdowns all season last year? And now you’re telling me he’s suddenly going to step up as a go-to guy for Brady?”
Understandable. That’s balanced reasoning.
But Dorsett had it tough last season. Real tough. He was traded from the Indianapolis Colts after training camp just days before the regular season. He had to learn the Patriots’ offense after they had already installed the damn thing. He was learning on the fly without the base knowledge necessary to fully understand what was being thrown at him.
And now, with a summer under his belt, he has it all.
“Phillip’s made a lot of improvement,” wide receiver coach Chad O’Shea said Tuesday. “He certainly has a lot of things to still improve on like we all do. But Phillip’s made a lot of improvement in our system one lap around the track now. That’s been the biggest thing.
“When we acquired Phillip last year, it was at the tail end of our installation and start of the game plan process. He didn’t really get the core and base of the offense like he did this year from an installation and teaching standpoint. Phillip embraced that. He went back to the basics and tried to learn the certain aspects of the offense that are the foundation of the offense, and I think that was a difference for him. He has worked extremely hard like our other guys have, but he has made a lot of progress for us. I look forward and I’m excited to see Phil this year.”
Dorsett made four catches Friday in the Patriots’ third preseason game that gave a glimpse into what he could bring to the offense this season. He showed he had gained Brady’s trust, got down the necessary timing with his quarterback and even began to make plays after the catch with his game-breaking speed. Getting on the same page as Brady is just as paramount as learning the basics of the offense.
“The quarterback has to trust a receiver to do the right thing, the receiver has to trust the quarterback to put the ball in the right spot, and when that happens, that solidifies the relationship,” head coach Bill Belichick said on WEEI’s OMF this week. “And if you do it again and again and again, that’s how you build that. It doesn’t happen in one play, it doesn’t happen in one game, but over a course of time, it can build in a positive direction.
“That’s what the receiver wants, because he wants the ball, and that’s what the quarterback wants, because he wants a guy he can trust to throw to. Everybody’s working hard to get that, but the only way to do it is to do it over and over and over again on the practice field and in game conditions so everybody has confidence in each other.”
Dorsett has received a ton of reps with Brady this summer, and building a rapport was important to him this offseason.
So, how does one do that?
“Just going out there and trying not to make mistakes,” Dorsett said. “Making sure mentally I’m there and physically I’m there, whether that’s being in my playbook all the time or making sure I’m available to run extra routes with him. Making sure we’re on the same page.”
If you’re going to be a successful receiver in the Patriots’ offense, you also have to have a good head on your shoulders. Belichick and O’Shea both complimented Dorsett’s smarts this week.
“Phil’s done a good job,” Belichick said. “He’s a very smart kid. He understands football concepts. He can play multiple positions — that X and Z, inside, outside, things like that. He has a good variety of routes he can run.”
You also need a work ethic.
“I think that any time that you get here when Phillip got here and he was acquired that you really have to try to embrace the learning as much as possible because the volume is great,” O’Shea said. “And I think Phillip is a very intelligent player. He’s got great work ethic, and he’s now had the opportunity to go through our full offseason program, a training camp cycle, and I think that’s been a great benefit for him especially. He’s a smart guy who’s really been very coachable and very receptive to trying to improve within our offense and embrace that.”
There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks of the Patriots acquiring a wide receiver to fill out their depth chart while Edelman serves his suspension. It’s a good idea in theory, but for all the reasons we mentioned above, about why Dorsett could make a jump this year over his lack of production last season, it would be hard for that receiver to get acclimated this season.
So regardless of whether the Patriots add receiver help or not, Dorsett is set to take on a big role this season. He wants it.
“This is what I’ve been preparing for,” Dorsett said. “This is what I’ve been working for. I wouldn’t say it feels different to me. I was here all along last year just trying to carve out a role, just grinding and learning as much as I can. I learned a lot. I’m still learning every day. It’s a lot to learn here in this offense.”
Thumbnail photo via Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports Images