Learning Curve: Patriots Rookie Wideout Aaron Dobson

The development of second-round pick Aaron Dobson will be monitored closely this season. (Photo: NFL Preseason Live)

NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas

From April of 2003 to April of 2012, the New England Patriots spent seven draft picks on wide receiver prospects. But over that nine-year span, only one of those selections – Pro Bowl special teamer and team captain Matthew Slater – ended up enjoying an extended stay in Foxborough, Mass.

So when head coach Bill Belichick and Co. spent the 59th overall pick in this year’s draft on Marshall wideout Aaron Dobson, the decision was met with both excitement and apprehension.

New England needed a sizeable young wideout who could stretch the field, and it was clear that the 6’3”, 200-pound Dobson fit the billing. Dobson was praised for his spectacular catches and ability to work the sidelines for first downs. He was praised for his basketball background, his smarts, his athleticism and 4.42 40-yard dash speed.

His praise was not without concerns, however. There were questions about the level of competition Dobson faced in the Conference USA, as well as his production. The Dunbar, W.Va., native never amassed more than 57 grabs and 689 yards for the Thundering Herd. In addition, he saw a drop in end-zone production, scoring just three touchdowns as a senior after notching 12 as a junior.

When the Patriots took a chance on the high-upside “X” receiver, the organization did so with the understanding that the learning curve could be a steep one.

Dobson is raw. Dobson is a man of upside. And through the four preseason games of August, we’ve seen both sides of No. 17.

Route-Running Separation

Dobson’s short-area quickness is not in the same tier as undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins or fourth-round rookie Josh Boyce. His long legs carve him in a different mold as a long strider.

While Thompkins and Boyce can swiftly shift gears and maintain speed through their patterns, Dobson has to cut down his steps in preparation for cuts. And due to this, it’s harder for New England’s can’t-miss receiver to make opposing defensive backs miss.

That was the case during New England’s preseason opener versus the Philadelphia Eagles on Aug. 9. As the Patriots were looking to move the sticks in the fourth quarter, the offense showed “11” personnel with one halfback, one tight end and then-Patriots third-string quarterback Tim Tebow in shotgun.

Dobson stood off the line, prepped to run a stutter go route. Across from him, 5’10”, 190-pound Eagles cornerback Shaun Prater started an early backpedal.

As Tebow handled the shotgun snap, Dobson broke off the line of scrimmage and headed deep. But once he readied to stutter, his steps got deliberate, which tipped his hand.

It didn’t help that the DB guarding him wasn’t watching, either. Instead, Prater was watching the quarterback’s eyes while running downfield.

Dobson hunched noticeably and exaggerated his arm motions. Nonetheless, with Prater still running without hesitation, the second-rounder was unable to sell the jitter when his man was playing off.

He continued to run his “9” route.

Dobson reached full speed and awaited the throw from Tebow. Yet as it sailed in underthrown, the size advantage over the cornerback could not be realized. Dobson turned back to no avail and was eclipsed inside by Prater.

The ball bounced to the ground as a result.

Dobson isn’t going to gain consistent separation by running fly routes down the sideline. He excels when he can free himself off press coverage with hand usage rather than being forced to surpass off coverage.

Downfield Dynamic

It may be shortsighted to call Dobson a “deep threat.” He’s not necessarily one to burn secondaries; he finds the soft spots within them.

Dobson’s size adds a dynamic to the Patriots offense that goes beyond the 10-yard bubble. According to Pro Football Focus, seven of the preseason passes intended for Dobson were on routes of 20 yards or more – tying him for second-most among the league’s wide receivers.

Converting those intended passes into completions is another story, though. Only one of those seven balls was caught by Dobson.

It transpired against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 2 of the preseason on Aug. 16.

Set up as the “X” on near the left sideline in New England’s “11” versus Tampa’s 4-2 sub-package defense, Dobson was orchestrated to run a deep corner route.

With the Buccaneers in zone, this afforded some cushion near the sidelines of the second level. Backup QB Ryan Mallett saw it.

As Dobson merged inside the numbers and dipped his outside shoulder, right cornerback Rashaan Melvin dropped back towards the boundary, while nickelback Michael Adams dropped back further in the seam.

With a runway in place for Dobson, he veered back left after he passed the 30-yard line. And with slot receiver Julian Edelman approaching the flats, the assignments of the secondary were put to the test.

Safety Keith Tandy hurried over to help, but it was too late. Dobson had found the crease and permeated the bubble. Mallett slinged a pass his way and the receiver leaped through the air for the snag.

Dobson turned up field for another five yards before getting bounced out of bounds.

Dobson’s 23-yard gain from Mallett was his longest of the exhibition schedule. Without much flash, he showcased an ability to get open through zone coverage.

Albeit a small sample size, Dobson led NFL wideouts this preseason in regards to PFF’s snaps-in-route statistic with 116 yards, signifying more than yards per reception.

Upper Body to Make Plays

Strong 33-inch arms and soft nine-inch hands are a good combination for a receiver. Dobson uses those measurables to bat through the press and extend for the ball – just not on an every-down basis.

Still, he’s striving to get there.

And when the Patriots battled the Detroit Lions in Week 3 of the preseason on Aug. 22, Dobson got there.

Set up as the as the lone receiver split out right, Dobson planned to run a quick slant while matched up with 5’11”, 178-pound veteran corner Chris Houston. 

As the ball was snapped, Dobson got help from Edelman, who created a pick by heading to the right sideline. The deception caught Detroit’s defensive backfield in a little logjam, paving an opening for Dobson over the middle after a slight shove off of Houston.

Quarterback Tom Brady rifled a pass into Dobson’s grasp, but a last-gasp punch from Houston popped it out. Dobson was left grazing his chest plate instead of the ball.

In a second effort of his own, Dobson lunged out for the fluttering ball. He latched onto the pass and hit the turf. It was an impressive gain of 11 yards.

Dobson’s ranginess aids him through jams and bobbled balls. Not all receivers have that in their toolbox.

Competing through Contact

Dobson’s receiving radius is the size of a dining room table. His long limbs and flexibility allow him to come down with circus catches all over the field. But while Dobson has all the skills needed to haul in the tough passes, he needs to improve on boxing out to make the easier ones.

In the second quarter of New England’s preseason finale against New York Giants on Aug. 29, that sentiment was on display.

The Patriots came out in “11” personnel with Dobson on-line out left versus by 5’9”, 185-pound Giants cornerback Trumaine McBride. With one of New York’s linebackers cheating up, and the secondary in the nickel package, center field was open for Dobson to run a five-yard in route.

As Mallett took the snap, Dobson fended off the physical press of McBride and cut towards the hashes. Although as he watched Mallett unleash the ball his way, Dobson straightened out his body and decelerated in order to focus on making the catch.

With McBride just one step behind, those adjustments left him susceptible to contact.

Once Mallett’s pass closed in on Dobson, so did McBride. With the corner’s right arm tucked under the right arm of Dobson, the pass-catcher found himself in a compromised position. The ball jarred off of his hands and shoulder pads as McBride wrapped him up.

He didn’t retreat to the ball enough make the catch before the hit. And with his back taking the brunt of McBride’s collision, Dobson’s arms naturally swung up into the air.

The ball soon followed. Then, New York linebacker Mark Herzlich was there to scoop it up for the interception.

Dobson put an emphasis on catching the football. Because of that, he let off in other areas of his route and was unable to free long enough for the pass to be absorbed before the contact.

The 22-year-old has the frame to go contest for passes. His ability to do so steadily – from a focus and defensive standpoint – is a work in progress. Per Pro Football Focus, New England’s quarterbacks netted a 19.6 QB rating and three interceptions when throwing to Dobson this preseason.

For Dobson, 2013 will be a week-by-week lesson. He’ll be learning on the job, just like he was this preseason. No NFL receiver logged more snaps this preseason than Dobson, and it’s because he needed those snaps to grow.

Now Dobson is far from a finished product at this point in his football life. But the Patriots have invested in him, and he’ll get an opportunity to prove his worth, even if there are growing pains along the way.

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6 Responses to “Learning Curve: Patriots Rookie Wideout Aaron Dobson”

  1. Jack says:

    That’s good reporting, but unfortunately doesn’t bode well for Dobson’s prospects in the NFL. By conrast, Thompkins can make unreal stutter-steps to juke out the receiver at the line of scrimmage. Dobson seems like his feet are in quicksand by comparison, at least by this analysis. If you can’t make clean cuts as a receiver in the NFL, your prospects are really limited. Hopefully, the Pats can find a way to take advantage of Dobson’s size, soft hands and amazing catch radius. I would hate to see him turn into yet another second-round bust.

    • MaineMan says:

      Seems to me that the main thing holding Dobson back at the moment (aside from his hammy injury) is a lack of self-confidence. He appears to play like he’s afraid of making a mistake. If he gets over that, I think he’ll be fine. His technique deficiencies can be fixed over time and his physical weaknesses can be compensated for. If he doesn’t get over the self-confidence thing, though, little of the other stuff is going to come to much.

      I think, though, that the types of plays that Josh and Brady may typically run with Dobson, at least this season, weren’t exposed much during the pre-season. And, for developmental purposes, they may have had Dobson running other roles that he’s not as experienced with (which could also be the source of his apparent tentativeness).

      We’ll simply have to wait until Dobson starts getting some “live fire” snaps and see how it goes.

  2. JMC says:

    He’s a willing blocker downfield and that is a good sign- I think he may have a tough season though- many growing pains-

  3. J H TARBORO says:

    Good article Oliver but don’t worry Dobson will be ok! Having Mallett and Tebow throwing him the ball wasn’t a fair observation of what this kid can give you. Tom Brady will find him a lot more than we think, he was the first rookie reciever in camp that he starting building chemistry with.

    • steve earle says:

      I believe you are right on the mark with your assessment JH. Once the real action starts (Sunday) Dobson will grow into a valuable NFL receiver, not Moss in his prime but still a good one.

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