Wide Receiver Aaron Dobson is facing a likely make or break season for the Patriots in his third year. (SBalestrieri, Image)
With the 2015 NFL Draft just days away, the attention of fans and media is riveted on the prospects who will soon be vying for spots on professional teams for the first time. But for a couple of players on the Patriots, the second and possibly the third time may indeed be a charm.
Two players currently on the Patriots roster face key 2015 seasons as they return from injuries that limited their 2014 seasons. Aaron Dobson and Dominique Easley were expected to play key roles for the team when they were drafted and currently hold positions that the team is scouting heavily in this seasonâs draft. The time is now for each to step up and take on a role that was envisioned for them. Although at least in Easleyâs case, the team knew that he probably wouldnât be 100 percent physically ready in his rookie campaign.
Aaron Dobson was drafted out of Marshall with a second round draft pick (59th overall) in the 2013 NFL Draft. A big, 6â3, 210 wide receiver with 4.42 speed and aÂ 35 inch vertical jump, he was supposed to be that big possession receiver that had the ability to take the top off the defense as well.
He was thrust into a starting role as a rookie due to a huge turnover in the wide receiver position in 2013 and subsequently struggled. He was tentative and suffered from too many focus drops, something he wasnât known for in his college days.
But as the season wore on, Dobson began to emerge slowly and finished with respectable numbers in his first pro season. While his numbers of 37 catches for 519 yards and four touchdowns arenât eye popping, they reflect a steady growth and confidence within the system. He suffered a foot injury late in the season and missed three games going down the stretch.
Foot Surgery Derails 2014: It was initially hoped that rest would heal his foot injury but it didnât prove to be the case and he finally had surgery to repair his ailment in April. As a result, he missed all of the OTAs and mini-camps and didnât take the field in training camp until the final day.
Missing all of this valuable bonding time with QB Tom Brady was crucial as Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and newcomer Brandon LaFell worked their way into the offense and not only got their timing down with Brady but earned his trust in being in the right place at the right time.
Dobsonâs foot injury was far from healed and he quickly disappeared in his second campaign, being a healthy scratch for eight of the teamâs first twelve games. When he pulled his hamstring in the Green Bay game, the team placed him on IR, ending a nightmarish season where he caught only three passes for 38 yards in 2014.
Team Not Standing Pat: Reports have been surfacing that the team is heavily involved in working out the wide receiver prospects in this seasonâs draft. Jason LaCanfora of CBS Sports posted a piece recently that both Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio were both taking a very active role in these workouts which led to speculation that the team would draft a WR early in the draft process.
With the top three WRs in place for 2015, that may not be the case, but the team will definitely be looking to augment the position and with Brian Tyms, newly signed Brandon Gibson and 2nd year player Jonathan Krause as well as fellow 2013 draftee Josh Boyce vying for that fourth wideout slot, the clock is ticking.
Dobson is certainly doing his part to prepare, back at the end of February, the Boston Heraldâs Jeff Howe penned a piece about how Dobson was fully committed to getting in the best shape of his life and was working out at the Fischer Institute in Phoenix.
Dobson is committed to making the 2015 season his best, working out in Arizona, getting healthy and stronger and ready to reclaim his position as one of Tom Bradyâs go-to guys. For him the clock is tickingâŠ
Dominique Easley was drafted to be a penetrating, disrupting interior DL, he should be fully healthy in 2015 more than a year removed from ACL surgery. (SBalestrieri, Image)
Dominique Easley was drafted in the first round with the 29th overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft from Florida. A slightly undersized but explosive player at the defensive tackle position, Easley was supposed to provide the interior pocket push the team has been searching for but unable to find for quite a few seasons.
The Patriots took a calculated gamble on Easley as he has had not one but two ACL injuries to each knee and was coming off of one suffered in October of 2013 when he was drafted last April.
The Patriots long employed a 3-4 defense where the defensive line players were asked to two-gap allowing the linebackers to make plays. Anchored by NT Vince Wilfork, the Patriots had a superb run stuffing unit but at the price of the pass rush which has been inconsistent in recent years.
With the proclivity of the passing game in the NFL, Bill Belichick has morphed the defense into a more of a 4-3 style, but with all of the sub-package play of the Pats defense, they played more of a 4-2-5 for much of 2014.
Easley Drafting Marks Change in Scheme: Easley was drafted to be that interior pocket pusher, heâs not a two-gap monster but an explosive penetrator, a disruptor in the backfield that can blow up running plays before they get started and bring pressure on the quarterback.
But his ACL surgery caused him to miss nearly all of the OTAs, mini-camps and much of the 2014 training camp. His typical explosion at the line was largely missing, which was not surprising as it normally takes a good 10 months to a year for a player to get back to where heâs fully healthy.
The Patriots tried him in a variety of positions in his rookie season; as a defensive tackle, a two-gapping experiment in Miami in Week 1 was not pretty. But it was at defensive end when Chandler Jones went down with a hip injury during the mid season thatÂ Easley showed glimpses of what he is capable of.
Against the Bears and Colts, he displayed some of that trademark explosivenessÂ and he disrupted plays in the backfield as well as showed some very good push in his pass rush. But his knee was still not close to 100 percent and he was shut down.
For the season Easley appeared in 11 games with two starts and logged nine tackles, one sack and one interception while playing in 261 defensive snaps, around the 25th percentile of the Patriots total for the season.
Healthy in 2015: Reports are that Easley will be ready to take part in everything this pre-season, the off-season conditioning workouts, the OTAs, mini-camps and be a âfull-goâ for training camp. That is great news for both the player and the team.
With Wilfork now a member of the Texans, Easley wonât be that big two-gap run stuffer given that Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch back in the fold and the team supposedly is looking for a big tackle in the draft.
The Patriots will be expecting Easley to be that disruptor, the penetrating tackle who can collapse the pocket. That will give DEs Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones and Jabaal Sheard a clearer shot at the quarterback who wonât be able to step up in the pocket. His career path may mirror Jamie Collins who played in only about a quarter of the defensive snaps in rookie season to play a pivotal role in his sophomore season.
With the departure of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, the Patriots will move from a defense that relies on coverage to shut down opponents to one based on pressuring the quarterback. Having good rotational pressure from the edge as well as interior pocket pressure will be imperative. Easley is slated to be a big, big, part of that.
With a healthy return of both Dobson and Easley, the Patriots not only have nine draft picks this spring but two potentially big pieces of the overall puzzle in its team building. They are expecting a lot out of both, but the jury is still out on them. Now it is their turn to step up.