The minute Julian Edelman went down, the questions began as to how the New England Patriots would replace him in their offense.
But those questions miss the point, that replacing Edelman is not possible in its purest sense. There is no one like Edelman on the Patriots roster, and certainly no one like him available as a free agent to sign. Instead, the Patriots are just going to have to work with what they have to replace some of his lost production.
That might mean getting more from Danny Amendola in the slot, it might mean more two-tight end formations, but no matter how they go about it, they're going to need someone to step up and produce more than they have been. Edelman had 61 receptions for 692 yards and seven touchdowns through nine games, so the Patriots will have to replace roughly seven catches, 77 yards and one touchdown per game.
There's at least one player on the Patriots roster who has been dying for an opportunity like this, and he might need the opportunity to prove he belongs on the Patriots roster for the long term: Aaron Dobson.
The Patriots third-year wide receiver has been active in seven games this season and has logged 12 receptions for 124 yards, but Edelman's injury sets off a chain reaction of sorts. Amendola will likely elevate from the No. 4 option in the passing game to No. 2 or 3, with Rob Gronkowski at the top of the pecking order and Brandon LaFell alongside Amendola in terms of their importance in the offense.
That's where Aaron Dobson comes in, as the potential fourth option in the passing game.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dobson has spent most of his time lined up on the outside, with just 22.8 percent of his routes coming from the slot. The most likely solution, then, would be to have Dobson line up on one boundary, with LaFell on the opposite side and Amendola in the slot if the Patriots go to a three-wide receiver set with Edelman out.
Dobson can be either the X or the Z receiver, but he hasn't shown the consistent yards-after-catch ability that would be necessary in a Z receiver. The Patriots like their receivers to be able to run short routes and take the catch for a long gain after the fact, particularly on screens and short patterns over the middle. Dobson hasn't shown much of that ability yet, but what he does have is long speed.
|Tom Brady deep numbers|
|Year||Attempt %||Accuracy %|
The Patriots also haven't thrown the ball deep much this year; according to Pro Football Focus, Tom Brady has attempted just 9.5 percent of his passes 20 yards or further downfield. That ranks 28th out of 32 quarterbacks in the league. That being said, he's been incredibly accurate on those throws. His 54.3 percent accuracy rate is the second-highest in the NFL through Week 10.
So, perhaps the Patriots could go to a more vertical passing game with some success, if that would help Dobson get involved. With Brady hitting his long ball at a better rate than he has in years, now might be the perfect time to test that rapport. Brady and LaFell got on the same page almost immediately when LaFell arrived in New England, but it hasn't been as easy for Dobson.
Just because it hasn't shown up on the game field, though, doesn't mean it's not showing up in practice, according to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick:
The big thing for Aaron really since the start of the year is he's been healthy and he's been out there every day working hard. He's another guy who shows up in practice a lot, similar to Harper, makes a lot of catches in practice against the defense and gets open. ... He's been out there, but his timing, his overall technique and consistency has improved, and he's had a good [year]. I know it doesn't always show up on Sundays but I'd say he's had a good year.
There's already some evidence that the rapport is improving, too. Brady targeted Dobson four times on the Patriots' final drive this past Sunday against the New York Giants, although Dobson came up with just one reception.
There will be opportunities for Dobson to improve on those numbers, though, so as long as the Patriots find a way to get him on the field, it's up to Dobson to produce when given the opportunity.
That being said, it's not entirely up to Dobson. There are other capable receivers in the fold that could be asked to step up with Edelman out of action.
The Patriots just recently added Chris Harper to the active roster, giving the rookie an opportunity to earn his keep. Harper had a strong preseason and training camp, and was even on the active roster in the final 53, so do not underestimate his ability to find a role.
There's also Keshawn Martin, who has made minimal contributions to the team in his limited time (six receptions, 95 yards, touchdown) but who has proven to have enough of a grasp of the offense to make plays in a pinch.
The answer to that question will probably change from week to week, as everything does in New England, but this is by far the best opportunity Dobson has had to contribute to the offense in quite some time.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained via team news release.