Training Camp Battle: Depth receiver

Can Dobson regain the momentum he generated during a productive rookie year?
On paper, the Patriots look pretty strong at the receiver position. They return their top three from last season (Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola), all of whom played well in the team's run to the Super Bowl. With tight end Rob Gronkowski also a major part of the passing game, Tom Brady should have no shortage of capable targets should everyone remain healthy.

Of course, counting on health is a fools errand in the NFL. That much is illustrated just by the names leading the depth chart in New England. Gronkowski, Edelman and Amendola have all missed significant time with injuries in their careers, and LaFell enters training camp sidelined on the PUP list despite shedding the protective boot he was wearing during minicamps.

In a perfect world, all three of Edelman, LaFell and Amendola will stay healthy, relegating the fourth receiver on the roster to special teams duty. However, the team must be prepared to replace any one of those guys should disaster strike. The depth chart looks a bit murky beyond the top three at this point, but any one of the guys in this competition could suddenly find themselves in a significant role if injuries open up an opportunity. Which of the competitors survives the August cutdowns to even have a chance at such an opportunity will depend on their play over the next month, as they seem to present more questions than answers at this point.

Brian Tyms

What a difference a year makes. Tyms was an afterthought when signed on the eve of training camp last year. An undrafted free agent signee of the Niners in 2012, Tyms had spent all of his rookie year on the Dolphins practice squad and much of 2013 on the practice squad of the Browns. At the time of his signing, his pro experience consisted of 60 snaps, 5 targets and 2 receptions for 12 yards, all of which came for a hapless 2013 Browns team. With most Pats fans putting plenty of stock in the development of second year receivers Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce last year, Tyms wasn't even a blip on the radar.

However, Bill Belichick has always proven he'll give opportunities to those who earn them, and Tyms forced his hand with an electric preseason. The Florida A&M product quickly emerged as rookie backup QB Jimmy Garroppolo's favorite target, catching 11 of his 18 targets for 188 yards (good for an impressive 17.1 yards per catch) and two touchdowns. He finished the preseason as the top graded receiver by ProFootballFocus, and beat out 2013 fourth round pick Boyce for a spot on the 53 man roster.

Tyms particularly excited Patriots fans because he brings a skillset many have been clamoring for. Tyms brings a tantalizing combination of size and speed to the table. His predraft workout numbers, which include a 4.48 40 time, 10'10" broad jump and 39.5" vertical, leave little doubt about his athleticism. He also has flashed a knack for using his 6'3", 205 pound frame to come down with contested balls down the field, something that was flashed plenty during the preseason and again when he made his Week 6 regular season debut with the team.

As impressive as that highlight reel catch was, it wasn't enough to earn Tyms a consistent role as the deep threat fans have always dreamed of. However, Tyms managed to stick around on the active roster for the rest of the year, and might have helped his case to make the team this year by putting his size and speed to use on special teams. Tyms stepped in as a gunner on the punt team late in the season, one of the most difficult jobs in the league, and flashed real ability there, including an impressive solo tackle. The list of guys who can play that gunner role effectively in the NFL is short, and Tyms will immensely improve his odds of making the team if he continues to flash there.

However, he's unlikely to see consistent snaps on offense unless he develops into a more complete receiver. While Tyms excels at using his hands and size to win vertically and come down with contested balls, he also needs to become more consistent as a route runner. The Patriots offense requires precision from it's receivers, and Brady has been quick to phase out targets who aren't consistently where they need to be in the past. With LaFell opening camp on the PUP list, Tyms will at least get a few more early reps to show improvement in that area.

Tyms may never develop into a complete receiver, but adding special teams contributions on top of his offensive upside should be enough to buy him another year on the roster. He certainly seems to have generated positive momentum for himself within the organization over the past year, and could surprise again by building even further off that momentum with another strong camp. At the very least, his special teams ability gives him a week-in, week-out role on the active, which could be a difference maker come cutdown day.

Aaron Dobson

The mere fact that Dobson is on the roster bubble entering his third season is a disappointment given his status as a 2013 second round pick. Much was expected out of the Marshall product, as entered the league with a Patriots team bereft of playmakers and desperate for someone to emerge following the loss of Wes Welker. He actually flashed real ability as a rookie, catching 39 balls for 552 yards and 4 touchdowns in only 12 games, peaking with a 5 catch, 130 yard, 2 touchdown performance against the Steelers in Week 9.

However, injuries killed his midseason momentum that rookie year, and killed his career momentum last year. Offseason foot surgery left Dobson sidelined for essentially the entire offseason last year, and the youngster was never able to recover from that missed time. As Brandon LaFell emerged in the "X" receiver role envisioned for Dobson, the second year pro wound up a healthy scratch for a major chunk of the season. He was finally active for a game in Week 13 (for the first time since Week 6), only to promptly suffer a hamstring injury that landed him on season ending injured reserve.

There was also a midseason report that he earned some of his time on the inactive list by "mouthing off" to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. That report was quickly refuted by Belichick, who claimed Dobson wasn't active purely for "football reasons". Given the struggles at the time of Brady's receiving core, that explanation was even more damning in the eyes of Pats fans.

A rough season for sure, but Dobson is finally healthy again and got to put a whole offseason to productive use entering this make-or-break training camp. He's still only 23 and with a 6'3", 200 pound frame and 4.42 40 time speed, Dobson still has excellent upside both as a deep threat and as a big, possession-type receiver. Like Tyms, LaFell missing the early portions of camp should give him some badly needed reps to show more consistency on the outside.

Dobson is certainly a more polished receiver than Tyms, and would likely bring more value to the offense if dropped into a meaningful role. However, unlike Tyms, Dobson has yet to play a snap on special teams in his New England career. With offense being his only way to contribute to the club, he'll likely have to clearly outperform Tyms in that department to beat him for a roster spot.

It's worth noting that Dobson absolutely has the talent to do so. He's been counted out at this point by much of the fanbase, unfairly in my opinion given that it's been injuries and not ability that's prevented him from contributing more. However, the NFL stands for "Not For Long" for a reason, and the Patriots aren't going to wait forever for Dobson to make good on his potential and emerge as the offensive cog he was drafted to be. If he can't win this competition, it could wind up being his last chance with Patriots.

The sleeper: Brandon Gibson

A 2009 sixth round pick, Gibson brings a veteran presence to this competition. Gibson cashed in with a nice contract from the Dolphins following a 51 catch, 691 yard, 5 touchdown season in 2012. His 3 year, $9.75 million deal looked like a bargain early in 2013, as he caught 29 balls for 322 yards and 2 touchdowns through the first six games, numbers that would project to a 77/859/5 line projected over 16 games.

However, that productive season was derailed by a torn patella tendon suffered early in a Week 8 loss against the Patriots. By the time he returned to the field healthy, he found himself battling Jarvis Landry, who was drafted in the 2014 second round to take over his slot receiver role. Landry did overtake him for that starting slot role as the season progressed, leaving him to slog through a 29/295/1 season as an afterthought behind Landry, Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and Charles Clay for targets. His contract, previously a potential bargain, now made him an obvious cap casualty for the cap-strapped Dolphins.

What Gibson brings to the table is a steady, veteran presence to a competition lacking that. He has reliable hands and is a dependable route-runner. He's versatile enough to play inside or outside, which should help his cause, although he's best utilized in the slot. He's unlikely to see much time early on at the slot with both Edelman and Amendola in tow, but his ability to play there could prove valuable should something happen health-wise to either player.

Reliability is good, but Gibson will have to demonstrate a return to his pre-injury athleticism to really factor into the mix. Like Dobson, he brings zero special teams value to the table, meaning he'll have to make the roster purely on his ability as a receiver. As the most accomplished NFL player in this competition, that's certainly possible. However, he'll likely have to outplay two higher upside options in Tyms and Dobson to get that chance, something that could be a tall order if he brings his so-so 2014 form to camp.

The forecast:

The real wild card in this competition is Dobson. If he rediscovers the form he showed midway through his rookie year, he could seize a role in the offense. However, if he doesn't show development, it would surprise no one for the 2013 second rounder to wind up cut.

Of course, the same could be said for everyone else in this competition. Tyms enters camp as the slight favorite in my mind due to his special teams potential, but he's hardly a lock after playing sparingly in 2014. Gibson is another interesting name in the competition, as he'll have to prove that he's still capable of the level of play he showed pre-injury. If he does, his reliability as a depth option will have real value, given how unlikely it is that all three Pats receivers manage to stay on the field as much as they did last year.

It's worth noting that Josh Boyce remains in this competition as well. A fourth round in 2013, Boyce was supposed to add speed and a big play dynamic to the Pats offense, but injuries and consistency issues have prevented him from making any meaningful contributions to the team. He was given up on and labeled a bust after failing to make the 2014 team, but showed enough internally to be kept around on the practice squad, where he often was seen with the black practice jerseys awarded to the practice players of the week. Boyce starts off this summer a little further back on the depth chart, but he remains an impressive athlete with the talent to play his way into this competition. Translating his raw speed into production in the return game would go a long way towards establishing a game-day role for him.

In the end, I'm going to stick with my gut, which tells me Tyms' special teams potential gives him the tiebreaker over Dobson. Dobson will still have a chance to make the roster, but he'll have to impress the team enough to convince the team to keep five receivers (six if you count Matt Slater as a receiver and not under the special teams category) at the expense of a another position. With LaFell likely to miss time early in camp, those practices will be critical for these guys to seize momentum and carry it over into a productive preseason.

Training camp begins tomorrow, and we'll thus be concluding our Training Camp Battles series with a look at the wide open competition for snaps at cornerback. Keep an eye out for that late tomorrow afternoon