By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The weird thing about Phillip Dorsett is that when he’s called upon, he generally answers. It’s just that, through two seasons with the Patriots … he hasn’t been called upon too often.
Now, perhaps, maaaaybe, that setup is going to change, after Dorsett agreed to a one-year “prove it” deal with the Patriots.
Whether Dorsett will get that opportunity depends on what the Patriots do overall in their roster building for the 2019 season. How that ultimately shapes up is anyone’s guess, but as it stands now, Dorsett is in a great position to take on an increased role in Tom Brady’s and Josh McDaniels’ offense.
Interestingly enough, that was the case to begin last season, before the Patriots went out and acquired Josh Gordon. Dorsett was the third-most targeted Patriots receiver (behind James White and Rob Gronkowski) in Week 1 vs. Houston, and the receiver caught all seven passes thrown his way, picking up 66 yards and a touchdown.
It was just the fourth career touchdown for Dorsett, as he began his fourth NFL season. Momentum was building for him through those early parts of the year. He caught five passes on seven targets for 44 yards the next week, and after getting kept without a catch in Week 3 at Detroit, he caught four balls on seven targets for 55 yards and a somersault touchdown while beating All-Pro corner Xavien Howard in man coverage during a Week 4 win vs. Miami.
After catching just 12 passes for 194 yards and no touchdowns in his 2017 debut season with New England, Dorsett had 16 receptions, 165 yards and two touchdowns through just four weeks of the 2018 season. The offense as a whole was not entirely clicking, but on an individual level, everything was trending in the right direction for Dorsett.
But then, all of the looks that Brady had been giving to Dorsett seemingly went to Gordon, who was targeted 66 times from Week 5 through Week 15. Dorsett was targeted just 11 times during that same span.
Part of that is understandable, considering Gordon averaged 18 yards per reception and added a different dimension to a Patriots offense that needed one. But still, of those 11 Dorsett targets, the receiver caught all 11 passes. One might have imagined that a 100 percent catch rate would beget more targets, but that was not the case for Dorsett.
Despite consistently coming up with catches (he’d finish the year with 32 receptions on 42 targets for a 76 percent catch rate), Dorsett was not targeted at all in six full games in 2018 — including four straight games in Weeks 13-16. Dorsett took just two offensive snaps in the loss to Pittsburgh, which happened to be Gordon’s final game of the year.
With Gordon out of the picture, Dorsett was once again a contributor to the Patriots’ offense in the Week 17 win over the Jets, when he caught five passes (on five targets) for 34 yards and another touchdown.
Dorsett was once again a bit of a vacuum in the divisional round, catching four of the five passes sent his way for 41 yards and a touchdown.
In the conference championship in Kansas City, his role lessened, but he scored the Patriots’ lone passing touchdown of the game, when he put a double move on Chiefs cornerback Steven Nelson and managed to keep his focus to make the catch despite Nelson literally hanging on his back.
Two playoff games, two solid contributions from Dorsett.
Then came Super Bowl LIII, when Dorsett was on the field for 36 percent of the Patriots’ offensive snaps but was not targeted a single time.
That’s not exactly out of the ordinary; the Patriots vary their game plans from week to week based on matchups they believe they can exploit. And certainly, Julian Edelman vs. any Rams defender was an ideal matchup from a Patriots perspective all night long.
The Patriots tend to go with what works. And on a night where James White was only targeted four times, it’s not at all a travesty that Dorsett wasn’t targeted once.
And so ended a somewhat befuddling year for the receiver who turned 26 years old before the playoffs began. A late first-round pick from Indy in 2015, Dorsett amassed 528 receiving yards in 2016, his final season with the Colts. In two full seasons with the Patriots, he’s now picked up just 484 receiving yards in 31 games played.
PHILLIP DORSETT STATS
2015: 18 receptions, 225 yards, 1 TD
2016: 33 receptions, 528 yards, 2 TDs
—-Traded to Patriots—-
2017: 12 receptions, 194 yards, 0 TDs
2018: 32 receptions, 290 yards, 3 TDs
2017: 2 receptions, 50 yards, 0 TDs
2018: 5 receptions, 70 yards, 2 TDs
That’s likely why there was apparently not much of a market for Dorsett, and why he signed back on with the Patriots for another chance to prove his worth.
And that’s the conundrum with Dorsett, isn’t it? Whenever he’s been given the chance to prove himself, he’s delivered. Normally, that results in more opportunities to continue proving oneself, but in Dorsett’s case, every burst of success has been followed by a stretch of getting overlooked, forgotten, or left out of the game plan.
Still, being able to come through with a huge play despite not being involved for a long stretch is a skill unto itself. That was the case in the previous season’s AFC Championship Game, when Dorsett was targeted zero times prior to making an absolutely tremendous adjustment to an underthrown ball by Brady on a flea flicker in the fourth quarter.
Dorsett broke wide open after faking as a blocker, but Brady’s short throw allowed Myles Jack to make up the lost ground. Dorsett managed to contort his body and leap over the linebacker before strongly securing the ball on his way to the ground.
Making that catch under any circumstance is impressive. Making it despite getting zero action in the passing game for three-plus quarters certainly adds to the degree of difficult.
(Dorsett ended up with just one catch for 19 yards on two targets in the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles.)
So when it comes to “proving it,” Dorsett seems capable. It seems to be just a matter of opportunity. If Gordon returns from suspension and plays for the bulk of the 2019 season, and/or if the Patriots add a player like Golden Tate, then it’s likely to be more of the same for Dorsett. But if that depth chart looks a little thin when training camp rolls around? Don’t rule out Dorsett being capable of taking on a larger role in the Patriots’ passing game.