When the New England Patriots drafted Aaron Dobson in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft (59th overall), he was billed as a developmental deep threat that the Patriots have been missing since Randy Moss departed. And while nobody was comparing Dobson to Moss, he was tall, big, fast, and had phenomenal hands - as evidenced by this catch during his career at Marshall - and so there was plenty of reason for optimism surrounding the young wideout. And as far as rookie seasons go, Dobson had a fairly good one; wide receiver is one of the hardest positions to transition into straight out of college, and so his 37 catch, 519 yard, 4 touchdown campaign was easy to take as a sign of things to come. With a full year in the Patriots system, an entire offseason and training camp, and additional time to hone his skills, Dobson seemed poised to make that fabled sophomore leap.
Cut to this year. Dobson was sidelined for much of the year with a foot injury that required surgery and an extensive amount of rehab that required him to miss virtually all of the offseason. And while it looked like Dobson was returning to form towards the end of the preseason, he has been a virtual ghost this year, suiting up for just three games, where he has three total catches for 38 yards. Not exactly what we were expecting from the 2nd round pick.
So what gives? Is Dobson just not what we thought he was? Or does it go deeper than that? It's certainly possible that he's just not panning out as a receiver and isn't where the coaching staff hoped he would be, but according to all reports he has done nothing but work his tail off each and every day and has been a model citizen in the locker room. Plus, he has Tommy B throwing him the ball. Brady has made a career of making receivers with far less ability than Dobson into superstars. So there has to be more at play here. Here are a few reasons why we might not have seen Dobson as much as we thought we might have when we, say, selected him late in a fantasy football draft and did more than our fair share of gloating that we just won our league with an absolute steal.
Health. If the Patriots were in a situation like last year where there just weren't any healthy bodies on the roster, Dobson would probably be seeing snaps every week. But New England is much healthier as a team than they were last year, and because of that there's no need to rush Dobson back into the fold. Whatever it was that was wrong with his foot was obviously significant, as it limited him last season, required surgery in the offseason, and kept him sidelined through most of training camp. Catching a significant injury early in your career and not taking the proper time to treat it can come back to bite you down the road, especially one in the lower half of your body. A receiver with a gimpy foot is no good to anybody, and so rather than take a risk of re-aggravating the injury, the Patriots have the luxury of taking their sweet time getting Dobson fully, 100% healthy.
Football shape. There's a big difference between being in shape and being in football shape - just ask Brandon Browner. To my last point, Dobson sat out for a significant chunk of time as he rehabbed his injury, and it takes a while to get back up to speed. This is something of a Catch-22, as Dobson isn't quite in good enough shape to get out there, yet many players insist that the only way to truly get into football shape is to play a bunch of games, and with Dobson out of the lineup he doesn't have the opportunity to get some snaps in. However, I think it makes all the sense in the world to take the steps necessary to get him into shape and ensure he can be an every snap contributor without getting gassed.
Scheme. Anyone who has watched the Patriots for more than two consecutive weeks knows that they are very much a gameplan-specific team. What you'll see from them one week, offensively and defensively, will completely change the following week based on the opponent and the available personnel. With Brandon LaFell really starting to click with Brady, Julian Edelman remaining a reliable option, the re-emergence of Rob Gronkowski, and the incorporation of Tim Wright into the offense, the Patriots may simply feel that Dobson's particular skillset hasn't yet given them the best chance to win. We've seen it on the other side of the ball with cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, and so it follows that Dobson would be an expendable piece on certain weeks. If Dobson dresses, that means another player has to sit, and Bill Belichick seems to value his depth elsewhere. Furthermore, as Wright gets more and more acclimated into the offense, we're likely to see more 2 and 3 TE sets in order to maximize mismatch potential, and by definition that formation calls for less receivers. Less receivers = less Dobson, particularly with the other guys producing right now.
Late season versatility. Few teams are better at transforming themselves on the fly and completely reinventing the identity of offense than the New England Patriots. In the past it has been out of necessity as players dropped left and right, but that doesn't mean they can't incorporate some of that versatility into these last two months of the regular season. While I wouldn't go so far as to say that Dobson is some kind of secret weapon that the Patriots are saving for when they really need him, he does offer a skillset that the other New England receivers don't. LaFell has shown flashes of deep threat ability, particularly last week against the Broncos when he got behind the defense and Brady just barely overthrew him for what would have been an easy TD, but Dobson is taller, faster, and has more big play potential. Plus, LaFell seems to excel in the intermediate routes that allow him to get a good push off the line and run slants towards the middle of the field. So to wait for a while and then unleash both Dobson and LaFell as dual outside threats with Edelman in the slot, Gronk as the move tight end, and Shane Vereen in the backfield as both a running and receiving threat adds a whole new and as-yet unseen wrinkle to the offense that could be nice to have down the stretch.
I'm sure that there are those who are ready to write Dobson off as yet another playmaker the Patriots swung and missed on; and based on their track record, it's an understandable position to take. However, I think that Dobson will not only see the field regularly as the season foes on, but will make an impact for this offense when his number is called. It's always nice to see draft picks come in and contribute right away, but the Patriots have the luxury of not needing Dobson to move the ball right now, so there's no reason to force him in there based solely on his draft stock.