It couldn’t have been easy for Patriots fans to watch Texans rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins take on the Titans last Sunday.
There was Hopkins, drafted 27th overall, catching three straight passes for 64 yards in the closing minutes of regulation to bring the Texans in range for the game-tying touchdown. Then with star receiver Andre Johnson on the sideline in overtime, there was Hopkins catching a 25-yard pass to bring the Texans down to the 1, and there he was three snaps later, catching the game-winning touchdown.
Hopkins finished the game with seven catches for 117 yards and a touchdown. And I could hear every Patriots fan thinking to himself: “Why can’t our rookies play like that?”
The Patriots offense has sputtered through the first two games, best exemplified by Tom Brady’s struggles with rookie receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, who have unexpectedly been asked to take on large roles with Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, and Shane Vereen all missing the last game and likely to miss Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay as well.
Thompkins, undrafted out of Cincinnati, has played 141 of a possible 156 snaps this year, and has caught six passes for 89 yards. Dobson, the second-round pick out of Marshall, sat out the first game with a hamstring injury, but played 33 of 65 snaps against the Jets and caught three passes for 56 yards and a touchdown.
But Thompkins has caught only six of 21 passes thrown his way, with a couple of drops. Dobson only caught three of 10, and Brady was furious last Thursday night when Dobson didn’t run the right route in the red zone, leading to an incomplete pass and a field goal instead of a potential touchdown. Dobson also dropped three passes, including a sure touchdown.
But Brady should really be screaming at his bosses, who decided to go young at receiver this year. Of course, they didn’t envision that Aaron Hernandez would be gone and that Amendola and Gronkowski would be injured so early, but they also purposely went young at receiver, with rookie fourth-rounder Josh Boyce (0 catches, 16 snaps) joining Dobson and Thompkins in the five-man rotation.
And if you look around the NFL, Hopkins is the outlier, while Dobson and Thompkins are more the norm.
The list of rookies doing better than Dobson and Thompkins is short. Hopkins leads all rookies with 12 catches for 183 yards and a touchdown. Tavon Austin, drafted eighth overall, is off to a good start with the Rams with 12 catches for 88 yards and two touchdowns. Robert Woods, taken 41st, has five catches, 86 yards, and a touchdown for the Bills. And undrafted Marlon Brown has eight catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns for the Ravens.
The Patriots, who originally had the 29th pick before trading it to Minnesota, could have had Woods or Brown.
Otherwise, rookie receivers around the league aren’t doing much so far.
Cordarrelle Patterson, taken with that 29th pick, does have a 105-yard kickoff return touchdown, but has only three catches for 24 yards in two games and has played just 11 total snaps. Justin Hunter, taken 34th by Tennessee, doesn’t have a catch yet. Same with Markus Wheaton (79th), Stedman Bailey (92d), Chris Harper (123d), and Quinton Patton (128th).
On the whole, rookie receivers usually don’t make much of an impact right away. Instant impact players like Randy Moss, Anquan Boldin, or Marques Colston, who each had 1,000-yard seasons as rookies, are rare, even for guys picked at the top of the draft.
Calvin Johnson didn’t get his first 100-yard receiving game until Week 15 and finished his rookie year with 48 catches, 756 yards, and four touchdowns. Larry Fitzgerald didn’t have a 100-yard game his entire rookie season, and finished with 58 catches, 780 yards, and eight touchdowns. Brandon Marshall, a fourth-round pick, had one start, 20 catches, 309 yards, and two touchdowns as a rookie before catching 100 passes his second season.
“I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s hard for a guy to just come in right away and pick up where they left off in college,” Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington said. “The game is a little faster — not physically, but mentally.
“The good thing about our situation is our rookies are very hard-working on and off the field, and are just eager to learn, so I think we’re heading in the right direction.”
Dobson, of course, doesn’t want to hear that rookie receivers can’t make an impact right away.
“There’s definitely a learning curve and definitely some things as a rookie you got to pick up, adjust to the speed of the game and stuff,” he said, “but I feel like you can come in and can contribute to the team as a rookie. It’s all about how you prepare and take it to the field.”
“Nobody can be perfect, mistakes can be made,” Thompkins added, “and it’s our job not to make the same mistakes twice.”
Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin, now with the NFL Network, said he got “sick and tired” of seeing Brady chastise his young receivers Thursday night and wanted him to use more positive reinforcement. Dobson said he’s not bothered by Brady’s emotional outburst.
“Him getting emotional or us getting into it maybe is just going to happen,” Dobson said. “But you just got to take it as a learning experience, move on from it. It happens all the time, but off the field it’s way different, just talking and getting on the same page.”
Brady, perhaps realizing that his outburst put too much negative focus on his rookie receivers, has put more of the onus on himself since Thursday night. But he reiterated Wednesday that the Patriots don’t have time to wait for the rookies to get up to speed.
“I think there’s a real urgency to what we do here,” he said. “This is not tiddlywinks, this is real football, and this is a real job, and we’re held accountable every single day for what we do every single day.”
And no one’s going to feel any sympathy for the Patriots and their rookie growing pains — not their opponents, and certainly not the fans, who expect the Patriots to compete for a Super Bowl.
“It’s hard, but it’s what you get paid to do, there’s really no excuses,” tight end Michael Hoomanawanui said. “Nobody’s really going to care at the end of the day unless you’re producing.”
First impressions by new receivers
How the Patriots’ new receivers compare with other rookies around the NFL:
* Kickoff return TD
*** Has yet to play