FOXBOROUGH — As the first receiver the Patriots have selected in the second round since 2006, there is a level of expectation that Aaron Dobson is The One.
As in, The One who erases a decade of ineptitude when it comes to drafting receivers.
Fortunately for Dobson, he’ll have some company this season; New England also drafted Josh Boyce, in the fourth round, and signed rookie free agent Kenbrell Thompkins after the draft.
But Dobson is the first wideout since Chad Jackson that the Patriots felt was worthy of a second-round pick.
Since the 2002 draft, when New England selected Deion Branch in the second round and David Givens in the seventh, through 2012, the Patriots drafted eight receivers.
In total, that octet collected 140 catches for 1,835 yards and 14 touchdowns in a Patriots uniform. The best of the bunch is the one who remains: Julian Edelman, a 2009 seventh-rounder.
And it is Edelman, the converted Kent State quarterback, not SEC star Jackson or Texas A&M record-setter Bethel Johnson, who has almost half of those 140 receptions — 69 as he heads into his fifth season.
The NFL draft is far from an exact science, and receiver is one of the harder positions to project.
“A lot of these guys are told what route to run on every play [in college]. In New England, receivers are asked to read defeneses, which correlates to which route to run,” said an AFC scout. “Or some guys know I had a ‘dig’ [route] or ‘post’ or ‘corner’ or ‘out,’ and they know what they have, but they’ve never known a numbers system. That’s why a lot of times it’s a learning curve [in the pros].
“That’s really why it’s so difficult — depending on the coach that drafts you and the demands, and how you react to coaching, it all comes into play.”
Dobson wasn’t always on a path to potentially be The One. Growing up in Dunbar, W.Va., across the Kanawha River from Charleston, he started playing basketball and football around age 6.
He acknowledges sheepishly that basketball was his first love, though he dreamed of turning pro in either sport.
His father, Robert, an operator at a chemical plant, encouraged him to work out when Dobson wanted to slack off, bringing him wherever he needed to go. Dobson is grateful he had his father to push him.
But around his junior year at South Charleston High, Dobson realized his height — he’s 6 feet 3 inches — was going to be a hindrance in getting to the NBA.
“It was just because of my size — in basketball I’m not really that tall for the position I played; I played two-guard,” he said. “I started thinking, ‘Man, maybe my body size is going to help me get to the next league in football’ so that’s when I made that decision.
“I felt like the way my body was I’d be a good receiver. And football just came natural to me.”
He found his basketball instincts helped on the football field.
Dobson stayed in his home state for college, electing to play for Marshall. His basketball skills were on full display for one touchdown against East Carolina in 2011.
Dobson essentially posted up a shorter defensive back, covering him in the end zone, turned his right hand away from his body, and grabbed the ball, twisting his arm back to his body to secure it.
“[Basketball] helps with a lot of things, especially as a receiver,” Dobson said. “There’s body control, going up to catch the ball. Just like a rebound, going up for a rebound and landing on your feet, and just the whole body-control thing, it really transitions on the football field.”
Video of the touchdown went viral and ESPN had it as a top play for weeks.
Dobson smiles at the memory, but ruefully notes that his catch came the same season as Bengals’ receiver Jerome Simpson’s front-flip-into-the-end-zone score, so he eventually lost the top billing.
Dobson had 165 receptions for 2,398 yards and 24 touchdowns at Marshall, the same number of touchdowns former Patriot Troy Brown had during his career with the Thundering Herd.
Entering the draft, he was considered part of the second-tier of receivers, behind top prospects Tavon Austin, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Robert Woods.
“We liked him,” the scout said. “We had him as a size/speed guy [Dobson ran 4.40 and 4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash at his Pro Day] with great ball skills, and he showcased those. Character-wise, he was a great kid, hard worker, all that stuff you look for.”
A second league scout noted Dobson has to play to his size more.
“He just needs to have a more physical presence about him. Sometimes he doesn’t play big. At the line of scrimmage he doesn’t always get off an aggressive press, he allows guys to re-route him easily, he doesn’t always attack the ball when there’s a defender near him,” he said. “He just has to play bigger, more physical.”
His size and speed are assets. But there may be one or two things Dobson possesses that could set him apart from the receivers the Patriots have drafted in recent years that didn’t work out, reasons he could be The One.
“You have to be smart, you have to be mature [to succeed in the Patriots system],’’ the second scout said. “There were a lot of receivers better than Dobson but they were not mature and they were not there from an intelligence standpoint. [New England’s] offense, it’s complex.
“That’s part of what makes it hard for young guys, grasping all the plays, all the formations. It’s a lot for you to study, a lot for you to learn.”
Bill Belichick cited Dobson’s intelligence the night he was drafted.
“He’s smart, very smart,” Belichick said. “He can explain the techniques, what other guys are doing at Marshall. He’s a pretty intelligent guy. He had a good understanding and grasp of learning, taking new information, processing that and being able to understand it and apply it.
“He’s a pretty impressive kid. He’s a mature kid. He’s pretty smart.”
Dobson acknowledged the offense has been difficult to learn.
“It’s definitely tough to grasp, but you’ve just got to improve and stay in it every day,’’ he said. “You’ve got to study, make sure you’re on your routes, your conversions, everything, and just trying to be on the same page as Tom [Brady]. As long as you’re on the same page as him, then everything will be good.”
He also said he had difficulty at first moving to a new region of the country for the first time.
“It’s been tough, going back to OTAs, it’s been tough for me,” he said. “Just coming up here was being far away from home. So it was a big adjustment off the field. It was kind of shaky at first, but now that I’m here, I’m adjusting, there’s good guys here and I’m making friends, so it’s coming along.”
He smiles and says he has his own place now, his first, so it’s starting to feel more like home.
It isn’t lost on Dobson that his childhood dream of playing in the NFL will come true Sunday. Robert and his mom, Angela, are making the trip to Buffalo, and a couple of his aunts are expected to be there as well.
“It doesn’t even seem real. I’ve been playing for so long, now that I’m here, it’s like ‘wow. I’m really playing in the NFL.’ It’s overwhelming but it’s fun,” he said. “I’m glad I’m here, I’m glad to be a Patriot and I’m excited about Sunday.”
And the Patriots will be excited if Dobson is The One.
The Patriots used two of their top five draft picks this year on wide receivers, and though fans might have tempered expectations for Aaron Dobson (59th overall) and Josh Boyce (102nd overall), there have been a slew of wideouts who were drafted in similar slots (since the 1970 merger) and went on to successful careers. (* -- made at least one Pro Bowl in career).
Players drafted in a similar spot to Dobson (59th overall):
(Player; year, overall draft selection; Career receptions)
*Greg Jennings; 2006, 52nd; 425
*Vincent Jackson; 2005, 61st; 344
*Anquan Boldin; 2003, 54th; 772
Deion Branch; 2002, 65th; 518
*Chris Chambers; 2001, 52nd; 540
Bobby Engram; 1996, 52nd; 650
Ricky Proehl; 1990, 58th; 669
Quinn Early; 1988, 60th; 460
*Mark Carrier; 1987, 57th; 569
*Mark Duper; 1982, 52nd; 511
*Tony Hill; 1977, 62nd; 479
*Sammy White; 1976, 54th; 393
Players drafted in a similar spot to Boyce (102nd overall):
(Player; year, overall draft selection; Career receptions)
Mike Williams; 2010, 101st; 193
Brian Hartline; 2009, 108th; 183
Jerricho Cotchery; 2004, 108th; 391
Brandon Stokley; 1999, 105th; 384
*Hines Ward; 1998, 92d; 1,000
*Derrick Mason; 1997, 98th; 943
Raghib Ismail; 1991, 100th; 363
Chris Calloway; 1990, 97th; 386
Mike Renfro; 1978, 98th; 323
*Pat Tilley; 1976, 114th; 468
*Steve Largent; 1976, 117th; 819
*Cliff Branch; 1972, 98th; 501