NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
One was a 21-year-old second-round pick out of Marshall, the other was a 24-year-old undrafted journeyman by way of Cincinnati and El Camino College. But while Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins traveled far different roads to Foxborough in April of 2013, their impact as New England Patriots rookies eventually merged them to the same one.
Early on, though, they appeared to be at different stages of development.
Dobson was on the field in the fourth quarter of preseason games, acclimating to the offense with players on the fringe of the 90-man roster. Thompkins, on the other hand, was on the sidelines after building chemistry with the first unit and quarterback Tom Brady.
Those initial glimpses weren’t solely rooted in talent, however. It was clear that Dobson’s ceiling was a high one, only the Conference USA product required a higher volume of in-game reps to reach it. His route tree with the Thundering Herd wasn’t the most assorted one. And Thompkins already had experience running an array of patterns versus future NFL cornerbacks in a basic yet rapid Bearcats hurry-up offense.
Still, both Dobson and Thompkins flashed promise during the summer’s four exhibition contests. The two wideouts had similar production by the end of August; Dobson netted 11 catches for 150 yards over his four games and two starts, while Thompkins netted 15 catches for 166 yards over his four games and three starts.
Even so, it was apparent that they were different players. It was apparent that they won in different ways.
Dobson’s 6’3”, 200-pound frame, long strides and wide catch radius made him an agile “X” target down the sideline or behind soft coverage downfield. In another mold was the 6’1”, 195-pound Thompkins, whose quickness, downhill lean and refined routes created separation out of releases against press coverage and added flanker versatility.
The latter got the first opportunity as New England’s regular season got underway. Dobson suffered a hamstring injury towards the end of camp, and that kept him out of the lineup for Week 1 versus the Buffalo Bills.
Thompkins, in turn, played 91 offensive snaps in his September debut, according to Pro Football Focus. In the process, he became the first undrafted rookie Patriots receiver to catch a pass since Bam Childress in 2005.
But the overall results were mixed; No. 85 tallied four receptions for 41 yards on 14 pass attempts. Within that stat line, there were miscommunications, misthrows and would-be completions that jarred loose.
There were plays where he left his feet to no avail. There plays where he didn’t have the field awareness to get both feet down.
And there were also plays where he left his feet behind him and fell down.
Sometimes Thompkins did everything right except stay upright to see the daylight in front of him.
In Week 2 versus the New York Jets, it was Dobson’s turn to make his premiere. No. 17 joined Thompkins out wide and had jitters of his own.
One of them was illustrated as he ran the incorrect route down in the red zone.
Others were illustrated as dropped three of the 10 passes thrown his direction.
But the first pass he did snare as a Patriot was a memorable one. Lining up as an H-back in a short-yardage set, Dobson’s intentions of running a wheel route were disguised. The outcome of the play-action fake was an uncovered 39-yard touchdown.
Dobson’s inaugural NFL game concluded with three receptions for 56 yards and the aforementioned score, while Thompkins notched two receptions for 47 yards on seven attempts.
It was trial by fire for both rookies through the first couple weeks of the regular season.
New England’s system – laden with pre-snap adjustments and option routes – proved to come with a learning curve for them, as well as rookie fourth-rounder Josh Boyce. Yet as the campaign progressed, so did their performance. It was about playing more and thinking less.
It was about growth.
In Week 3 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they took the next step. Dobson bounced back to harness seven catches for 52 yards on 11 pass attempts from Brady, who also found Thompkins for three catches and 41 yards on seven tries.
Two of those tries transpired in the second quarter. They handed Thompkins his first two NFL touchdowns.
The first of which – a drag route underneath – Thompkins was able to stay on his feet through the catch and cut upfield.
The second of which – a dig into the back of the end zone – he was able to fight off the jam and gauge his route depth to keep both feet in bounds.
Those elements of Thompkins’ game were not seen in Week 1 or Week 2. And they helped him earn his quarterback’s trust once again versus the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4, where he caught six of 11 targets for 127 yards and his third score in two weeks.
One of those catches in embodied that trust more than the rest.
A 3rd-and-19 from the New England 12-yard line in a 13-10 ballgame.
Thompkins went deep across the middle and outlasted a personal foul penalty to sway the momentum of the fourth quarter. It sealed his standout game. Yet, in a sense, his standout game came at the expense of Dobson, who caught one pass for 10 yards on three attempts.
Nevertheless, the following week against the Cincinnati Bengals came at the expense of them both. Dobson and Thompkins combined for five receptions and 65 yards as the Patriots offense and Brady’s touchdown streak sputtered in the Ohio rain.
Things took a turn for the better in Week 6 against the New Orleans Saints. Dobson began carving his way through the outskirts of the secondary, using his flexibility and length to widen Brady’s passing windows on comebacks and out routes. In doing so, he collected six receptions for 63 yards on 10 passes.
Thompkins wasn’t as prolific versus New Orleans. He watched one pass sail out of his grasp on a vertical route, and then he saw another short-hop in front of him on a comeback he didn’t retreat for fast enough.
That was the story until Brady spiked the ball at the 17 with 10 seconds remaining.
Then a game-winning score averted it.
Thompkins’ fly route and high-point catch over the head of the New Orleans defense capped off a Patriots comeback. But the celebration was short-lived. It would ultimately be his final score of the year.
In Week 7 against the Jets, Thompkins secured two passes on five targets for just 16 yards, while Dobson secured three on seven targets for 34 yards. By the time the clock had run out, it was a loss for New England, and it carried over for Thompkins.
He played a mere 14 snaps against the Miami Dolphins a week later, as veteran Austin Collie replaced him in the starting 11. Whether it was his unsteady connection with Brady, or his struggles disconnecting from corners on straight-line downfield, Thompkins didn’t enter the game until the final play of the first quarter and was targeted only once.
Dobson, in contrast, played 50 snaps in Week 8, converting on four of five throws as he registered 60 yards and a TD. It struck a change in the tides between the two receivers; Dobson’s ability to sell the sluggo routes with a strong inside step and sudden head fake added a key ingredient to the passing attack.
And although his efforts were partly lost in the final score of the Miami defeat, they weren’t lost over the arc of the regular season. Dobson’s emergence was a sign of things to come.
That was clear versus the Pittsburgh Steelers the following week. Brady tossed nine passes Dobson’s way. Five of them went in the books for 130 yards and his first career multi-touchdown performance.
Dobson harnessed a contested back-shoulder catch on a 17-yard fade as the fourth opened up. It required concentration and forceful hands at the moment of reception – two skills that Dobson had fought in previous outings.
Not long after, he overcame another issue; he beat the jam with efficiency.
With under six minutes to go, the split end pushed outside his man off the snap, and that catapulted him down the left sideline. Dobson raised his hand into the air when he bypassed the safety shell, and his deep speed shipped him 81-yards to the end zone.
The play stood as the longest play of the Patriots’ season.
The Week 9 game stood as the first inactive of Thompkins’ season.
It may have been an underlying injury. It may have been a coverage matchup. It may have been a decline. Regardless of what it was, the rookie apex was nearing for both Dobson and Thompkins. Only neither knew it yet.
Dobson caught four of seven passes for 38 yards in a loss to the Carolina Panthers after the bye week, while Thompkins caught both of his targets for 60 yards. From then on, though, attrition started to take its toll.
Dobson left the historic Nov. 30 duel with the Denver Broncos shortly before halftime with zero catches and an injury to his left foot. That seemingly thrust Thompkins’ concise separation routes up from the No. 4 spot on the depth chart, and he made quick work.
Yet after Thompkins suffered an injury of his own, Dobson returned to the field for two plays in the third before leaving again.
Thompkins’ ailment only proved to be minor; he subbed back in and finished with six catches for 56 yards on nine throws in roughly one half of action. Dobson’s ailment proved to be severe; it was a stress fracture that lingered for the duration.
The day-two draft choice missed the next month. And the priority free agent was also stifled by injury during the home stretch, hurting his groin while making a cut against the Houston Texans in Week 13.
They both played in two of the final four regular-season games, accumulating a total of 10 receptions for 43 yards. Over that span, neither player was near 100 percent. Dobson’s health regressed even further when he suffered a setback against the Buffalo Bills in Week 17, which eventually gave way to offseason surgery.
And with that, their 2013 seasons drew to a close. Dobson’s 519 yards and four touchdowns marked the most for a Patriots rookie receiver in the era of head coach Bill Belichick, and Thompkins’ 466 yards and four scores weren’t far behind.
They accrued 12 games apiece.
The two started at different places and made their presence felt in different ways, but they traced a similar trajectory. And while their 670 routes, 12 drops and even 69 receptions weren’t always the way it was drawn up, their maturation was visible with each passing week.
The growth of Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins was forged out of necessity. Yet by the end of the season, they themselves were a necessity.