The New England Patriots have not been good at identifying wide receiver talent in the early rounds of the NFL draft and it's because they draft athletic players without much polish. While it's easy to tell the Patriots to draft players that know how to run routes instead of those that can jump out of the stadium, it's just as important to watch other teams to see how they go about their evaluation at the same position.
"I don’t know that there’s any formula for [drafting wide receivers]," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said, even though he clearly has the secret formula. "We evaluate the receivers just like we evaluate any other position. We just have been very fortunate.
"Can a guy run? Can he separate? Can he make a contested catch? Can he make the big, tough catch in the end zone? Can he run after the catch? If he can check off all those boxes, chances are he’s going to be a pretty good player."
Those all seem to be skills that the Patriots look for in a player, as there's no question that Dobson checked off all of the criteria coming out of college. But it seems that the success of the player isn't just based on the player's physical talent, but also how well they can adjust to opponents.
"I think [receivers] have to get used to the style of defenses here, the precision of the routes because of defensive backs and how skilled they are," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. "The timing as far as the quarterback may throw you the ball and you’re not going to be as open as you were in college."
And that's where the evaluation of Dobson starts to fall apart. Dobson played well enough against lesser talent while at Marshall in Conference USA, but he was not a dominant player and the question marks in his game were all quietly answered at the NFL level.
Dobson looked great in shorts and was able to make circus catches, but scouts said that he didn't play to his size and wasn't always aggressive to the ball. When he started to face better defenders, that inability to compete for the ball prevented him from being a larger part of the Patriots offense.
Bengals Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin thinks there's a benefit in drafting polished route runners that come from a pro style offense.
"Formationally, [spread offense] guys are often going from real basic stuff to where they are lining up on the right side on the outside all the time and going fast and don't have to worry about the formations, the motions, the shifts, the check-with-mes that NFL teams do," Tobin explained at the Combine about the adjustment difficulty for rookie receivers. "Lot of times it's just learning the formations and knowing the multiple spots that he fits in each one of those formations."
"Certainly route running in the NFL is different. The level of talent in the defensive backfield is different for these guys. It's a position that is hard to come in and take off right away. It can be done but you normally need a guy that's had a little bit more experience with more of a pro-style attack in college."
If the Patriots want to find a successful wide receiver in the draft, they need to stop taking athletic players from spread offenses.
Deion Branch came from a pro style attack, as did Brandon Tate. Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, Taylor Price, Aaron Dobson, and Josh Boyce all came out of variations of the spread offense.
Save a draft pick. Select a Pro Style receiver.