Second-round pick Aaron Dobson, fourth-round pick Josh Boyce and undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins comprise what could be thought of as the future for the Patriots at wide receiver.
One problem: The future is now.
It may not be a problem at all. The Patriots seem fully prepared to embrace this truth. In fact, the three rookie receivers lead all Patriots receivers in snaps this preseason: 82 for Dobson, 78 for Thompkins and 72 for Boyce.
It's time for these three to show what they're made of in the third preseason game against the Detroit Lions on Thursday.
"I’m proud of all of those young players for coming in — we’ve thrown a lot of stuff at them," Tom Brady said after joint practices with the Eagles. "I said the other day that it’s not like we’re backing off because that’s not the way our offense is. We’ve got to keep putting the pressure on everybody, whether it’s Aaron [Dobson] or Josh [Boyce] or KT [Kenbrell Thompkins] or Zach Sudfeld. Everyone who’s out there is expected to go in there and execute at a pretty high level."
Dobson had a hot start to training camp, showing off his size and athleticism. He's been up-and-down since then, like any rookie, but he's had enough good moments to outweigh the bad.
He lines up primarily as an "X" receiver, on the outside of the formation. He has the requisite tangibles with his size (6'3", 215 pounds) and speed (4.44-second 40-yard dash at the combine). Dobson’s skill set is similar to another former Marshall and Patriots receiver, Randy Moss.
The talent is not the same level, but Dobson showed his Moss-ness with an impressive catch on a seam route from Brady, where he shielded two defender with his body as he made the catch. He has four catches for 65 yards in the preseason, an impressive 16.3 yards per reception.
He could improve his focus; we have seen him drop catchable passes in practices and two in the preseason opener against the Eagles. Another big game could go a long way in building momentum toward the regular season.
The Patriots are probably also looking for a big game from Thompkins, who has shown incredible route running skills and the ability to win one-on-one matchups. He's been the most versatile of the three receivers, as well, lining up as the "X" and the "Z", or the slot. Like Dobson, Thompkins has the size (6'0", 195 pounds) to line up outside, but he also has the agility (6.88-second three-cone drill at the combine) to run sharp routes from the slot.
Thompkins has easily been the surprise of camp, and now looks poised for a big role in the offense. He'll need to do better than last week, though, when he logged just one catch for three yards, but it shouldn't be a shock if he starts opposite Danny Amendola in Week 1.
Josh Boyce continues to get most of his work with the first- and second-team offense, but unlike Dobson and Thompkins, Boyce is more of a "Z" than anything else.
Boyce has some explosiveness to his game (he ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash and a 6.68-second three-cone drill on a broken foot), and he could line up on the outside in a pinch, but he's best suited for the slot. At 5'11" and 205 pounds, he might have trouble getting off jams consistently and winning jump ball situations, but he has the quickness to get open over the middle, and has some thickness to his frame to take the hits he will likely endure as a result.
Boyce has looked good in practice at times, but has yet to hit stride in games, though, with three catches for nine yards this preseason, all of it earned in one game.
This game presents the last opportunity for these three receivers to make a statement before the season. The Lions run a press zone coverage scheme in the secondary. They have some cornerbacks with size: Ron Bartell (6'1", 210 pounds), Myron Lewis (6'2", 203 pounds) and rookie Darius Slay (6'1", 190 pounds) all stand out.
The challenges will be interesting. The receivers will have the chance to show they can get off a jam. This is important, because defenses will likely look to disrupt the timing element of the Patriots' precision offense. Also, this will be a test of the receivers being on the same page with Brady. While press zone is the Lions' primary coverage scheme, they'll probably mix it up from time to time in an attempt to throw the Patriots receivers off their reads.
The offense is already clicking with Brady throwing it to Amendola and tight end Zach Sudfeld consistently and effectively. If one or two of the three rookies can make an early impact, the fireworks could fly early when the regular season rolls around.
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