By Matt Dolloff (@mattdolloff)
BOSTON (CBS) — After Patriots No. 1 receiver and Tom Brady safety valve Julian Edelman exited Sunday’s thriller against the New York Giants, the Patriots offense struggled to stay on the field and consistently make plays. Brady now faces his first extended stretch of time without Edelman since No. 11 became his go-to wideout, and needless to say he is going to need the rest of his weapons to elevate their games.
Danny Amendola stepped up big-time in the second half of the game, adding another clutch performance to his Patriots resume, highlighted by a game-saving 4th and 10 catch over the middle during the Patriots’ eventual winning drive. Brandon LaFell is still working off the rust, but should be expected to round into form as Brady’s top outside threat. So who steps up as the third option at wideout when Brady really needs his last read to make a play?
To the reluctance of many, you have to look to third-year receiver Aaron Dobson.
I know, the name alone may make you cringe. The much-maligned former second-round pick has teetered dangerously close to “bust” status in the past two seasons, and frustration at his lack of production is understandable.
When Dobson exploded for 130 yards and two touchdowns in Week 9 of the 2013 season against the Pittsburgh Steelers (pictured above), he looked to be emerging as the dynamic outside threat the Patriots desperately needed at the time. But since injuring his foot in that game, Dobson hasn’t been able to stay healthy or get back on the field in over two calendar years. And when he has gotten chances, he has struggled with drops and consistency. Dobson is rapidly approaching Bethel Johnson/Chad Jackson/Taylor Price territory, fair or not.
But now, with Edelman out for at least 6-8 weeks and perhaps for the rest of the season, Dobson and every other receiver shifts up the depth chart. Amendola presumably takes over Edelman’s role in the offense, and considering his clutch play since the second half of the 2014 season he can be counted on to produce as Brady’s slot receiver, albeit a little less effectively than Edelman. LaFell could continue in his normal role, but will see an uptick in targets. Gronk will continue to be Gronk, but without Edelman on the field teams could devote even more attention in coverage to No. 87.
That leaves Dobson with a huge opportunity to contribute to the offense in a major way. As the No. 4 option in the passing game with minimal pressure on him to produce, Dobson will get plenty of looks from Brady as Gronk draws extra coverage and opens things up for him. Since it’s unrealistic to expect Amendola to take over Edelman’s production all by himself, Brady will need to spread the ball around more than usual – and Dobson will get his share of those targets.
Dobson finished Sunday’s win at the Meadowlands with just one catch for 5 yards, but his one grab was a huge one: he caught a 5-yard out on 2nd and 3 and went out of bounds to stop the clock and give the Patriots a first down with just 47 seconds remaining in the game. It was a simple play, but Dobson did his job and that’s all that mattered in the end.
If Dobson can do his job for 5 or 6 plays a game, he should be considered a success. Third downs are going to be especially challenging now that Brady lacks Edelman in addition to Dion Lewis – and with Gronk likely getting blanketed and Amendola drawing No. 1 corners in those spots, there will need to be times where Dobson is counted on to keep the chains moving.
After a tumultuous first three years in the NFL, this could be Dobson’s last chance to stick with the Patriots. You may believe that he has already gotten free passes for his lack of production, but Bill Belichick clearly remained patient with Dobson as he recovered from multiple foot injuries and continued to pick up the playbook. It took Amendola a season and a half to finally look like a consistent contributor, and the same could be the case for Dobson.
Healthy and assuming a regular role in the offense, Dobson has a chance to finally become the weapon the Patriots envisioned when they drafted him. It could be his last.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Read more from Matt here. Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.