Aaron Dobson’s 2013 season stands far in the New England Patriots’ rearview, but it also stands as the most productive one of any rookie wide receiver in the Tom Brady era.
The second-round pick by way of Marshall reeled in 37 passes for 519 yards and four touchdowns from the New England Patriots quarterback over the course of 12 games and nine starts that campaign, later battling a stress fracture in his foot that ultimately led to surgery and stifled his 2014 season before it began.
Dobson would never be able to replicate that strong inaugural year in Foxborough. And as his next two seasons closed on injured reserve after 16 receptions for 179 yards combined, so did his tenure with the team.
But there atop the rookie archives Dobson remains, followed up by Deion Branch’s 2002 season, Kenbrell Thompkins’ concurrent showing from four go-rounds ago, and Julian Edelman’s 2009.
TOP ROOKIE YEARS IN BRADY ERA
Aaron Dobson’s 2013: 12 games, 37 catches, 519 yards, four touchdowns
Deion Branch’s 2002: 13 games, 43 catches, 489 yards, two touchdowns
Kenbrell Thompkins’ 2013: 12 games, 32 catches, 466 yards, four touchdowns
Julian Edelman’s 2009: 11 games, 37 catches, 359 yards, one touchdown
There’s a good chance Malcolm Mitchell will not eclipse the receiving production of all those rookies from Patriots past.
The fourth-round pick out of Georgia had seven catches for 95 yards on his NFL resume through Week 10 of the regular season. And in one month-long stretch – which included two appearances, an inactive and the bye – he went without catching one.
But Mitchell has since regained and surpassed his early ground. The numbers reflect it as much as the eye test does.
The 24-year-old has caught nine passes for 140 yards and three touchdowns over New England’s last two games alone, and most recently secured the go-ahead score with two minutes to go in Sunday’s encounter with the New York Jets against ex-Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis for his second TD of the evening.
It was his most pivotal mark to date. But Mitchell left several in the Patriots’ 22-17 win over the Jets prior to then, not unlike he did the Sunday before in what was a 30-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
In the first half against New York, Mitchell boxed out, turned back and elevated to retrieve a six-yard grab on a fade-stop versus another onetime Patriot in Darryl Roberts for his first reception of the game.
It kept the chains moving.
He followed that up two minutes later by drawing defensive pass interference – and a 31-yard gain – while running a fade on a double-pass from wideout Chris Hogan. And not long after, with 6:35 left before intermission, Mitchell ran an over route behind Revis and extended for the ball on a snap that Brady had fumbled.
A four-yard touchdown was the byproduct.
Mitchell then picked up 11 yards on a slant at the two-minute warning, and was one corner’s disruptive hand away from reeling in another with the first half’s seconds ticking down.
Those key looks continued out of the break versus New York, as the ball was sent Mitchell’s way on three occasions in the fourth quarter. The first of which picked up 13 on a slant, and the second fell incomplete on another fade that was inches away from being six.
The latter, with the Patriots down by a score of 17-13, was one Mitchell wanted to have back.
“We have a team full of great guys who kept me encouraged,” he told reporters in the locker room afterwards. “I felt miserable after missing the earlier pass. All the guys kept me encouraged and told me we have more time.”
Mitchell, of course, did have more time.
And the next time he was in Brady’s sights, he managed to score the game’s deciding points from the slot on that aforementioned eight-yard quick-out pattern opposite Revis.
With that, his second eventful game in a row had ended.
TARGETS AGAINST NEW YORK
Third-and-5, 13:35 in second: Six yards on fade-stop route
First-and-10, 11:46 in second: Pass interference on fade route
Second-and-goal, 6:35 in second: Four-yard touchdown on over route
First-and-10, 1:58 in second: 11 yards on slant route
First-and-10, 0:12 in second: Incompletion on fade route
First-and-10, 10:17 in fourth: 13 yards on slant route
Third-and-7, 7:12 in fourth: Incompletion on fade route
First-and-goal, 2:00 in fourth: Eight-yard touchdown on quick-out route
It remains to be seen whether Mitchell will be able to continue to climb late this season. Inevitably, much of that hinges on the gameplan and the health of those surrounding him out wide. But the rookie’s integration into an offense that delves deeper at the skill positions than it did when Branch, Dobson, Thompkins and even Edelman were first-year pros should hold weight.
It is a credit to Mitchell’s ability to learn quickly, fight for possession as well as yardage, and retain the confidence of not only the coaching staff, but the quarterback throwing to him.
He’s ahead of the curve.
“I think Malcolm has done a lot to gain everyone’s trust because he shows up every day, works his butt off and is so committed to the team,” Brady said in his press conference following New England’s victory in East Rutherford. “Football means a lot to him. He’s come through in the clutch, so we keep giving him opportunities.”
Those opportunities have fluctuated on a week-to-week basis for the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Mitchell, who had gotten an extended glance against the 49ers as Hogan, the starting “X,” was sidelined with a back injury, before proceeding to out-snap slot receiver Danny Amendola against the Jets.
Those opportunities to see the field, not to mention the football, appear similar to a reverse bell curve through Week 12.
RESULTS BY WEEK
Week 1: 39 snaps, five targets, two catches, 33 yards
Week 2: 31 snaps, two targets, one catch, 15 yards
Week 3: 16 snaps, two targets, one catch, 27 yards
Week 4: 20 snaps
Week 5: 25 snaps, three targets, two catches, seven yards
Week 6: 11 snaps
Week 7: 30 snaps
Week 8: Inactive
Week 9: Bye
Week 10: 20 snaps, two targets, one catch, 13 yards
Week 11: 66 snaps, five targets, four catches, 98 yards, one touchdown
Week 12: 34 snaps, eight targets, five catches, 42 yards, two touchdowns
As the Patriots turn the calendar to December, Mitchell does so having caught 16 passes for 235 yards – with a 56-yard long – and three touchdowns through 10 games and three starts.
Based on that line, Mitchell is currently on pace to finish the year with 23 catches for 342 yards and four touchdowns. That would not be enough to edge out most of those before him. Given his midseason lull and recent ascension, however, it would be remiss to calculate Mitchell’s growth through a 16-game projection.
He is playing his most confident football as the Patriots enter the final five games of the slate.
“That just comes from practice,” Mitchell said. “I try to work as hard as I can to prepare for any opportunity. I never know when they will come, when they do I try to be ready.”