Is Aaron Dobson the Non-Edelman Receiver to Own From New England?

We all know Julian Edelman should be Tom Brady's favorite wide receiver target this year, but who's next in line?

Some weeks, playing fantasy football can feel a little like stopping for food at a no-name roadside diner on a 12-hour road trip: you’re desperately wishing you had some surety and security in an outcome, but making a big risk may lead you to find true satisfaction. In the same way, we fantasy players may prefer the certainty of a mere few points from guys we know and trust, but those “sure things” almost never have the potential to win us a week. Like a Big Mac, we prefer the comfortable that will tide us over, but we will never find that fantastic mom n’ pop place in the middle of nowhere if we don’t take a leap of faith.

I’d like to expand your fantasy football palate with an introduction to a little understood delicacy known as Aaron Dobson. The sophomore receiver for New England does come with good recommendation, as he was the 27th pick of 2013’s second round in the NFL Draft, and he hasn’t yet gone stale at a tender age of 23. So why is this prime cut being selected as only the consensus 68th wide receiver in fantasy drafts, and are you getting a steal off the value menu if you select him in 2014?

Mystery Meat

There are a few lines of thinking that suggest Dobson’s status as fantasy happy meal should be seen more as cafeteria gruel. Perhaps the most concerning is Dobson’s offseason absence from workouts and training camp, due to a still-healing stress fracture that he suffered in Week 12 of 2013’s season. He proceeded to miss three games that season, and was clearly limited and in pain when he returned to the field in Week 16. Complicating things is that his March 10th surgery saw a screw get inserted in his foot to stabilize the fracture, which indicates that the injury was much more serious than first thought.

However, Dobson has been practicing over the last two weeks for the Patriots, despite being inactive for the preseason. According to Jene Bramel of Football Guys, Dobson’s current pace indicates that there may have been a setback in his rehabilitation, but all word out of Patriots preseason camp seems to suggest that there is no consideration of Dobson being out. Is it a risk? Sure, but if his upside is high enough and draft cost low enough, this injury risk may still be worth it.

Another concern is Dobson’s quarterback, Tom Brady. Many writers, including myself, have suggested that Brady may be losing some of his value as a passer from his prime. However, this summer, we here at numberFire proved that Brady is still among the very best in the league. Brady still posted a very good season by our metrics despite a near career-low year, in which his top receiving options were sidelined by injury.

The table below shows Brady’s 2013 season in terms of our signature numberFire metrics, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a measure of how much a player contributes to his team’s chances of scoring on any drive, measured in expected points. This table reflects Brady’s performance in terms of Passing NEP, which is NEP gained solely on all drop backs by a quarterback, and his ranking in these categories among all quarterbacks with 100 or more drop backs last season.

YearDrop BacksRankPassing NEPRankPassing NEP/Drop BackRank
20136674th68.719th 0.1010th

In the second-worst year of his career, Brady still posted a line that put him in the top 10 at his position both in total passing value (Passing NEP) and efficiency (Passing NEP per drop back; value per opportunity). In addition, his top-five ranking in drop backs indicate a team that is willing to throw the ball heavily, providing opportunity to its pass-catchers. With all this value to be had in his situation, why are we skittish about Dobson?

Aaron Dobson is a Tater Tot Hotdish

In Minnesota, where I live, there’s a bizarre meal consumed at most potlucks called “tater tot hotdish”; call it a casserole, and the locals will politely call you ignorant. Yet that is exactly what it is: a collection of vegetable and meat chunks swirled together under a veiling crust that prevents you from knowing exactly what’s in there. It could be delicious, but there’s still an off-chance it might be excruciatingly bad.

This is the same case with Dobson. It’s not that he’s a safe play for you to draft, it’s that he should be worth the risks associated with him. Dobson missed Week 1 last year due to a hamstring injury, but for owners who picked him up or drafted him despite this risk, he paid off fairly handsomely. Between Week 2 and Week 9 last year, Dobson was the 22nd best wide receiver in standard scoring formats (21st in PPR). Remember, this was as a rookie and with very few other options to draw attention away from him in the Patriots’ passing game. In this eight-game span, Dobson received 58 targets, converting 31 of them into receptions for 454 yards. This is a highly valuable output for a player you can obtain as your fifth or sixth fantasy wide receiver in standard leagues.

By looking at Dobson’s rookie year through our NEP metrics, his potential value becomes even more apparent. The table below shows his 2013 production by Reception NEP (value gained on each reception) and Target NEP (value gained on each play in which a player was targeted), as well as his ranking among all wide receivers between 50 and 100 targets.

YearRec NEPRankTarget NEPRankRec NEP/TargetRank
201347.7624th 17.1224th0.66t-23rd

For lesser-targeted receivers last season, Dobson performed fairly admirably. He wasn’t a premier option for this class of players, as the data shows, but he far outstripped many other receivers at that level of production. And, for reference, he was fifth in Reception NEP, fifth in Target NEP, and third in Reception NEP on a per target basis among all rookie receivers last season.

Is there still risk with this unproven player? Absolutely, but you don’t play fantasy football to finish in the middle of the standings; you play to win. With an ADP outside of the first 14 rounds according to, Dobson has such little draft cost and so much explosive potential that you’d be foolish not to grab him in your fantasy drafts. Dobson isn't the filet mignon of fantasy wideouts, but he'll be filling at the very least, and possibly provide even more sustenance than you expect. So, go on: pull over to that greasy spoon diner, pick up that spatula, and serve yourself up a nice piece of hotdish. Chances are, you’ll actually enjoy it.