The New England Patriots acquired former first round pick and wide receiver Phillip Dorsett from the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Dorsett was touted as the next Brandin Cooks or T.Y. Hilton when he was in the 2015 NFL Draft so it’s curious that he’s played alongside both receivers in the NFL.
Dorsett’s played more since the bye week due to Chris Hogan’s shoulder injury, taking the field for 168 of a possible 270 snaps (62.2%) over the past four games, but that additional time hasn’t resulted in greater production with just 3 catches for 55 yards on 3 targets, including 0 targets on 48 snaps against the Buffalo Bills. Dorsett’s on pace for 196 yards from scrimmage in 2017, the lowest of his career.
“[Dorsett] doesn't have enough snaps to qualify for the ranking, but if he had he would be 82nd in yards per route run (0.91) and 89th in targets per route run (0.06) out of 89 wide receivers,” PFF analyst Zoltan Buday writes. “So yes, he's dead last in targets per route run.”
So what’s the problem? Why hasn’t Dorsett been able to produce in New England?
Well, I think it’s important to examine Dorsett’s role in the Patriots offense to answer this question.
First, Dorsett has been extremely productive in the run game. The Patriots average 5.16 yards per carry with Dorsett on the field, versus 4.10 without him, and that +1.06 yardage differential is by far the biggest on the team. He’s active as both a blocker and by drawing defenders down the field and away from the running back. His presence alone is value added and that gets him time on the field.
Second, while Dorsett hasn’t been targeted, he’s still contributing in the passing game by drawing coverage and attention. While he’s a clear 5th option in the offense while he’s on the field, behind Brandin Cooks, Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, and the running back, he’s often used to run combination routes with Gronkowski or Cooks to draw the safety help away.
And third? Well, Dorsett is still getting open when he’s actually running routes. Tom Brady just isn’t looking his way.
Here’s the play against the Bills where Tom Brady threw behind Brandin Cooks, leading to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Brady arguing on the sideline. McDaniels was yelling that Gronkowski was open running up the seam.
But what about Dorsett? He’s on the far side of the field by the sideline and he was wide open without a defender near him. A pass to Gronkowski would’ve been risky because the safety was lurking, but the tight end could have been open if he went to his outside shoulder, since the cornerback was tracking Cooks’ in route.
But the easiest and safest pass was definitely to Dorsett down the sideline. He was wide open.
And later in the game, when the Patriots were by the goal line, they wanted to throw a pass to Rex Burkhead with a linebacker in coverage. Brady was pressured and was well short of reaching Burkhead.
While it was a good concept, Dorsett was also wide open with a step on his coverage and open field in front of him. Dorsett was the inner-most receiver on the near-side of the field and made his way through the traffic to get across the field.
That might not look like a lot of space, but Burkhead had even less separation and that’s more that enough by the goal line if Brady does a nice job of leading Dorsett.
Even later in the game, Brady opts to throw to Gronkowski in tight coverage. Gronkowski comes down with the 30-yard gain in an impressive reception, so it all ended well, but Brady left yards on the field.
Dorsett starts the play by motioning from the nearside slot to the farside slot and the Bills blitz the cornerback in coverage. There is literally no one in coverage of Dorsett and yet Brady throws to the tightly covered Gronkowski.
This suggests that Brady simply doesn’t have the rapport with Dorsett where he feels comfortable looking in the receiver’s direction. It’s nothing against the receiver, but Brady just feels more comfortable with his other options.
The only way this will change is if McDaniels starts to draw up some plays where Dorsett is one of the first couple reads on the play- and when the offense includes Cooks and Gronkowski, it’s hard to justify slotting Dorsett ahead of them. But those plays with Dorsett as a target are necessary for Brady to become more comfortable with his receiver.
This could all be moot when Chris Hogan returns to the field because Brady has a rapport with Hogan and feels comfortable targeting him. But if Dorsett keeps contributing as a run blocker and keeps getting open as a receiver, then the Patriots will have no choice but to find a way to get him more involved as a receiver.