FOXBOROUGH — Phillip Dorsett knew change was inevitable once Julian Edelman returned from a suspension and a trade planted Josh Gordon in the Patriots locker room four weeks into the season.
The role Dorsett played in the early stages of the season would be different, targets would come fewer and farther between, and he’d have to find a way to take advantage of opportunities as they came.
“I knew things were going to change,” Dorsett said. “That’s why I didn’t let it get me down. I know that they know they can count on me when asked upon. So I didn’t let it bother me.”
Coming out of the bye week last month, the question was how Dorsett and Chris Hogan figured into the Patriots passing attack. But since then, their roles have only continued to diminish.
Dorsett hasn’t seen more than three targets since Week 4 against the Dolphins. He hasn’t had a pass come his way in either of the Patriots past two games. He was only on the field for seven snaps last week in Miami.
Even though his role has been reduced, Dorsett said he stays prepared.
“I just keep working because you never know when your number’s called,” Dorsett said. “So you’ve got to keep working, just make sure you’re ready — mentally, physically — and you’ve got to be ready to be counted on when your number’s called. So I don’t let it get to me, I don’t worry about it, I just keep working because I know I can play and they know I can play. So I just keep working, and I’m ready.”
Since catching six of seven targets for 63 yards in a Week 7 win over the Bears, Hogan’s watched his role shrink over the past six weeks. He’s made just six catches for 116 yards. He hasn’t been targeted more than twice.
As recently as Week 10 against the Titans, Hogan was on the field for 82 percent of the Patriots offensive snaps. But each of the past three weeks he’s been on the sideline for more than half of the Patriots plays.
Dorsett’s and Hogan’s usage dropped off almost as soon as Edelman returned from a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substances policy and Gordon arrived via trade with the Cleveland Browns.
During Edelman’s four-game absence, Dorsett was on the field for no less than 70 percent of the Patriots snaps. He was quarterback Tom Brady’s most frequent receiving option, catching 16 passes on 21 targets for 165 yards and two touchdowns. In the past six weeks, he’s been targeted just 11 times.
Since Week 6, Gordon has been on the field for no less than 70 percent of the Patriots snaps, and he’s averaging 7.4 targets over those eight games.
Edelman almost never leaves the field, taking no less than 80 percent of the snaps since his debut in Week 5. Edelman has been the go-to option for Brady since his return, getting 81 targets and turning them into 56 catches for 621 yards and four touchdowns. Gordon in that span has 37 catches, 669 yards and three scores on 63 targets.
During the week, as the Patriots are installing their game plan, Dorsett said he could sense how much — or little — he’ll factor in.
“I pretty much go with the flow,” he said. “I kind of know. You see how it is. You see how the game plan goes. So you just stay ready, because you never know what can happen.
“I’m just making sure I’m doing extra work, making sure I’m right on the stuff that I need to know.
“Making sure I know everybody else’s positions, what everybody else needs to do so whenever I get thrown in there I’m ready, and there’s no drop-off.”
Despite so many missing pieces early in the season, the Patriots have managed to remain effective as a passing team. They’re seventh in the league in average yards per game (278.8) through the air.
But this will be the first year since 2013 that the Patriots haven’t had a player finish in the top 15 in receiving yards.
As they’ve sorted through the shifts in the receiving corps, Dorsett said unselfishness has been vital.
“You’ve got to be unselfish when you’re playing this game. That’s just how it goes. You’ve got to be unselfish if you want to win.
“I feel like the unselfish teams are the ones that win in the end. We’ve got a lot of guys in this room who are unselfish and are willing to put aside their pride for the team, and that’s what I try to do.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.