Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins have been linked ever since the summer of the 2013. That's around the time Patriots fans first became aware of Thompkins, who as an undrafted rookie receiver began to show some promise during OTAs and mini-camp.
Dobson, of course, was already on everyone's radar after being selected in the second round out of Marshall. He was expected to come in as a rookie and lead Bill Belichick's self-described "re-do" at the wide receiver position. Instead, he joined Thompkins as part-time contributors a year ago, and the two were discussed constantly this offseason as potential candidates to make the proverbial "year-two jump."
It turned out that the re-do was more of a work in progress, and unfortunately for Patriots fans it's a project that's far from complete. Neither Dobson nor Thompkins has emerged as a consistent contributor, and over the first three weeks of the season they've yet to be active in a game together.
In the opener it was Dobson who was listed as one of the inactives. Although he was not listed on the team's injury report, he was coming off surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot and saw very little action in the preseason. So, while his deactivation was a bit surprising, it was not totally unexpected. Thompkins finished the Dolphins game with five catches but was targeted 10 times and managed only 37 yards.
Dobson returned in Week 2, but it was Thompkins who replaced him on the inactive list. Dobson caught Tom Brady's first pass of the day in Minnesota, but wasn't able to contribute much of anything else the rest of the way and was targeted only one other time.
On Sunday against Oakland the two changed places again, this time Thompkins catching just one pass from Brady for 16 yards while Dobson sat.
Belichick was asked about the decision-making process regarding playing time for the two receivers and explained that a variety of factors are involved.
"We try to take everything into consideration when we go with final 46-man active roster. The game plan, the matchups, the different rules in the kicking game and sometimes how that affects other positions," Belichick said in a conference call Monday morning. "So, in the end if we could have more than 46 players active we would love to have several of guys that were deactivated at the game and there's probably a good chance several of them would have played. But in end, the combination of all the things I just mentioned, we try to make the decision we feel is best for team relative to the 46 guys that are there and that's a function of multiple things."
In terms of the kicking game, neither Dobson nor LaFell appears to have a role on special teams, unlike Brandon LaFell. LaFell, who caught four passes for 46 yards against the Raiders, his first four catches after having the first seven passes thrown to him result in incompletions, has been part of the team's kickoff unit in the early weeks and perhaps has earned playing time as a result. He's also considered a solid blocker, and with the team relying more on the run the last two weeks perhaps that factored into the game plan as well.
As Belichick said, a variety of factors are likely in play, but the bottom line is the Patriots need more of the their complementary receivers, regardless of which ones are suiting up on Sundays.