The 2013 NFL season brought with it great uncertainty for the New England Patriots, particularly on offense. After watching one of the best receivers in the history of the franchise depart via free agency, one of the team’s promising young tight ends was charged with murder and promptly released. As a result, it was inevitable that the Patriots offense would undergo a dramatic overhaul. As part of that plan, the team was set to rely on three rookie receivers who were locked in on the depth chart behind veteran Danny Amendola, himself acquired through free agency and working with quarterback Tom Brady for the first time. The team and its fans had extremely high hopes that an influx of young talent at the receiver position could bring a new element to the offense and force teams to once again respect the Patriots potential for making big plays deep in the secondary. The undrafted Kenbrell Thompkins looked to be the Patriots number one receiver outside of the slot and the team invested a great deal of capital throughout training camp in the talented Aaron Dobson and rookie Josh Boyce. These three young receivers figured to play prominent roles in the offense and throughout the first half of the season some of them did just that. But what happened was not the seamless introduction of young talent into a complicated offense. Instead, the young receivers struggled mightily to earn the trust of their quarterback and the faith of Patriots fans as inconsistency became the defining characteristic of their play.
Now, just when the Patriots offense looks to be hitting its stride, it’s fair to wonder whether the team and their fans put too much faith in the prospect of rookie receivers contributing at the level necessary to sustain the kind of offensive production the team and its fans expect. It took the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski and a healthy Danny Amendola for the Patriots offense to finally put up the kind of numbers the league has grown accustomed to seeing from New England. Despite the adversity the young Patriots receivers have faced, they have made real contributions and are an important reason why the Patriots are 7-2 and leading the AFC East. After nine weeks of action, let’s look at how each of the Patriots young receivers has fared so far in 2013.
Josh Boyce has been by far the biggest disappointment of the Patriots crop of rookie receivers. After a stellar college career at TCU, Boyce has thus far struggled to get consistent playing time with the Patriots. Through nine games, Boyce has been active for only five. He has managed only six targets in that time and only one catch in that limited action. Most of his time as a Patriot has been as a healthy inactive and there’s not too much to read into that. As coach Bill Belichick often says, the players active on Sunday are the ones he thinks give the team the best chance to win that game.
Boyce’s versatility may be why he’s struggling to emerge in the Patriots offense. While he can play effectively at all receiver positions, he doesn’t stand out in any one spot. He faces fierce competition on the outside with fellow rookies Dobson and Thompkins as well as in the slot with veterans Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Barring an unfortunate injury to another receiver, it’s likely Boyce will continue to occupy the bottom of the depth chart at the receiver position. Boyce has a strong track record of success, so if he is given an opportunity, look for him to make the most of it.
Until an unexpected healthy inactive in week nine, Kenbrell Thompkins seemed to be progressing well. Through week 7, Thompkins was one of Tom Brady’s most frequent targets. But since the return of Rob Gronkowski, nobody’s playing time has suffered more than Thompkins’. In the absence of Gronkowski and a healthy Danny Amendola, Tom Brady relied on Thompkins as his possession receiver, but with veteran options returning to the field, Brady has rightly turned his focus elsewhere. Despite his recent reduction in playing time, Thompkins has had his moments this season, particularly on an improbable game winning catch against the New Orleans Saints in week six. But Thompkins’ major problem has been consistency both in route running and in his ability to make tough catches. If the veterans on offense can stay healthy, Thompkins playing time will likely continue to suffer. He will be an interesting story to watch when the Patriots come out of their bye week. While Bill Belichick has spoken well of Thompkins since benching him against Pittsburgh, whether or not he’s active for the team’s game against Carolina will speak for itself.
Aaron Dobson is by far the most promising of the Patriots young receivers. While he struggled with drops earlier in the season, his chemistry with Tom Brady seems to be improving each week. All things considered, Dobson is having an impressive season for a rookie in a Tom Brady led offense. Through nine games, he has 31 receptions for 454 yards and an average of more than 14 yards per catch. Dobson’s 31 receptions have come on 60 targets, however, highlighting the difficulty he and Brady have had getting on the same page. While their chemistry seems to be improving, it will be important for that differential to shrink if he expects to remain an important part of the Patriots offense. While playing time for Boyce and Thompkins stands to suffer as veterans return from injury, Dobson actually stands to benefit given that he’s established himself as the Patriots starting outside receiver, regardless of who else is on the field. If Gronkowski and Amendola continue to produce in the middle of the field, that should open things up for Dobson on the outside. If he and Brady can capitalize on that, as they did on an 81 yard touchdown reception against the Steelers, the Patriots offense has the potential to once again be truly dynamic.
While the performance of the Patriots rookie receivers has certainly been mixed through nine weeks, the team and its fans should be pleased that these rookies have been able to contribute at the levels they have thus far. That is, in large part, why the Patriots have seven wins. Others will argue that their collective performance is why the Patriots have two losses at this point, but that is based on an unrealistic assumption that rookies should fit seamlessly into an NFL offense. Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson have been real assets for this team, despite their struggles at times. Both will likely continue to contribute throughout the remainder of the season. While Thompkins will see more limited action as a result of a renewed veteran presence, the sky is really the limit for Aaron Dobson who will be given every chance to succeed as the Patriots outside threat. It should be fun to watch how these two young receivers continue to progress throughout the remainder of the 2013 season.