It was the fourth quarter between the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, 1st-and-10 on New England’s 19-yard line.
Aaron Dobson lined up along the left sideline. He noticed the alignment of Pittsburgh’s defensive backs and made an adjustment. Quarterback Tom Brady was also aware of the Steelers’ alignment and anticipated that he and Dobson were on the same page.
By the time Dobson caught the pass 41 yards downfield, he was five yards behind Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor. With safety Ryan Clark giving chase, Dobson ran away from both defenders to complete the 81-yard touchdown pass.
And that’s why the Patriots drafted Dobson.
Immediately after receiver Wes Welker signed with the Denver Broncos, I demanded the Patriots should draft a big receiver with the speed to get behind the defense. After the annual meat market and rookie free-agent signings, New England had four rookie receivers on the roster.
The highest rated of the quartet was Dobson, a 6'3", 210-pound game-breaker at Marshall selected in the second round (59th overall).
Dobson started the season slow, but he’s getting better as the season progresses. If he continues to improve, Dobson will be the outside threat the Patriots have been looking for since they traded Randy Moss in 2010.
New England certainly tried to replace Moss before. They looked in the draft (Taylor Price, third round, 2010) and hoped a couple of veteran receivers (Chad Johnson, 2011; Brandon Lloyd, 2012) still had some speed left.
No one provided the Patriots with everything they were looking for, particularly the ability to stretch the field. Price and Johnson couldn’t fully grasp the offense. And while Lloyd was productive, he couldn't tear the top off the offense.
The Patriots didn’t give up in 2013. First New England tabbed Dobson, who ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at Marshall’s pro day. And in the fourth round, New England selected Josh Boyce, who ran a 4.38 40 at the NFL combine.
In Dobson’s debut, he had a couple of opportunities to show off that speed. His first career reception was a 39-yard touchdown against the New York Jets. Later that game, Dobson beat the corner on a deep pass. Unfortunately, Dobson dropped the pass that would had gone for a sure touchdown.
So far, Dobson is averaging 14.6 yards on his 31 receptions. It’s the highest average per reception for a Patriots receiver with at least 25 receptions since Deion Branch averaged 14.7 yards in 2010.
Even better news is Dobson might not be alone by season’s end. Receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, another rookie, is averaging 14.5 yards on 23 receptions. Though Thompkins fell out of favor recently, Thompkins can add to his surprising rookie season if he regains the coaching staff’s confidence in him.
Meanwhile, the confidence in Dobson grows. The dropped balls that plagued him early this season are decreasing. An example is Dobson’s adjustment to back-shoulder throws. After dropping the first two passes, Dobson caught one for a 17-yard touchdown against the Steelers.
Catching back-shoulder passes is a vital skill for Dobson to have. It sets up the over-the-shoulder passes behind the defense New England hopes Brady and Dobson regularly connect on in the future.
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