Saturday, April 27, 2013
Double wide: Patriots' receiver redo
By Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Bill Belichick's new NFL draft motto: Why settle for one when you can have two?
He did in 2010 with tight ends Rob Gronkowski (second round) and Aaron Hernandez (fourth round). Then it was followed up in 2011 with running backs Shane Vereen (second round) and Stevan Ridley (third round).
And now, following a one-year offensive hiatus, Belichick doubled his offensive pleasure in the 2013 NFL draft at receiver with Marshall's Aaron Dobson (second round) and Texas Christian's Josh Boyce (fourth round).
The Patriots are banking on Josh Boyce's success at TCU to translate to the NFL.
Yes, the New England Patriots used the majority of their draft picks on defenders for the second year in a row -- and an improved defense will be critical to the team's championship hopes -- but if there's one area that is sure to excite the team's fans, it's the potential for what the dynamic Dobson/Boyce duo might bring to the offense.
It's new. It's exciting. And, perhaps above all else, it's intriguing. While the Patriots have drafted and developed rookies into immediate contributors at other positions, this is the first time they're making such an authoritative effort to do so at receiver, a position in which they normally rely on veterans.
To a degree, it's "play the kids!" and let's see what happens. Belichick, in an interview on NFL Network, called what is unfolding overall at the receiver spot a "redo."
"Look at the guys who have caught balls at that position [for the Patriots] and we don't have a lot of them on our team," he told reporters at Gillette Stadium on Saturday night. "[Julian] Edelman and then a couple balls here and there, so we'll see how it all comes together. I don't know."
There is always an element of the unknown with rookies, and that's why the Patriots have layered the depth chart with some more experience, including Edelman, who was coming on strong in 2012 before a hand injury derailed his progress. Veterans Michael Jenkins and Donald Jones will also compete for roles, while long shots Kamar Aiken, Jeremy Ebert and Andre Holmes currently round things out.
The one certainty at this point is that Danny Amendola will largely fill the void created by Wes Welker's unexpected defection to the Broncos. Belichick said Saturday that Amendola is mostly an inside receiver, and all eyes will be on him in the slot, then the rangy, athletic Dobson (6-foot-2¾, 210) and fast, physical and tough Boyce (5-11, 206) on the outside.
In the early Super Bowl championship years, it was often the Deion Branch-Troy Brown-David Patten combination. Then it was Branch-Brown-David Givens. In 2007, it was usually Randy Moss-Welker-Jabar Gaffney, and that was off-the-charts explosive.
Could a Dobson-Amendola-Boyce trio measure up?
Amendola's transition to the offense has already begun, and it helps that the five-year veteran had exposure to Josh McDaniels' attack while with the St. Louis Rams in 2011. For Dobson and Boyce, the work starts now, and coming to the Patriots represents one of the greatest challenges they could possibly have.
If the rookies landed with a club that had a first-year coach, they'd be starting at Chapter 1 with everyone else. It's the exact opposite in New England, where Belichick is the NFL's longest-tenured head coach and has kept the same system in place since his arrival in 2000.
Will Aaron Dobson develop into a perimeter weapon and trusted option for Tom Brady?
"A lot of players who come here feel challenged at that position based on having an offense that's been in place for 13, 14 years now," Belichick acknowledged Saturday. "It evolves a bit every year, maybe gets modified a little bit, but it's grown. It has a lot more breadth to it than it did in 2000, 2001, 2002. That means a new guy coming in has to learn, to a degree, 12, 13 years of stuff. I think that's challenging."
The jump from college to the NFL is challenging for any receiver because of the difference in coverages and complexity of schemes. Add in the breadth of the Patriots' offense and its often blistering pace, and it's understandable why the club has leaned more heavily toward veteran receivers in recent years. But that hasn't always worked out as planned.
Last year, current Cleveland Browns general manager Mike Lombardi opined in his role as a media analyst that the Patriots were running into a similar issue that the Miami Dolphins did in the later years of quarterback Dan Marino's career. Marino played in Miami from 1983-1999 and toward the end of his career, the offense became so great that no young player could execute it. Even experienced players struggled, so after go-to receivers Mark Duper and Mark Clayton weren't around, problems surfaced.
Belichick acknowledged this is something the Patriots have to be cognizant of at this time.
"You just can't keep adding, adding, adding. At some point, you have to trim the fat," he said. "We've turned over the tight end position, we've turned over the running back position and we've turned over a number of the positions on the offensive line. Now we're doing it at receiver.
"I think it's a little bit of you have to figure it out as you go. You have a plan, you try to do it a certain way, but as you get into it, you see how it's going and what certain players are able to do or how quickly they're able to adapt. You modify your teaching."
One common thread when it comes to Dobson and Boyce is that they are both considered smart receivers. In theory, that should help the transition, as another crucial aspect will be how they mesh with demanding quarterback Tom Brady. Until a receiver earns Brady's on-field trust, it can be a rocky road.
So while we'll closely watch the defense to see if there are telltale signs of improvement, one could also make the case that there isn't a position on the Patriots' roster that intrigues more than receiver. It did before the draft, and it especially does now.
Why settle for one when you can have two?
Welcome to New England, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce.