The Patriots’ greatest weakness on offense may not be so weak, after all.
“What is New England going to do at wide receiver?”
That was the biggest question as the Patriots entered training camp on July 26. Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins looked solid during the spring and there was a steady, if not unexciting, stopgap in Michael Jenkins at the position. But many assumed second-rounder Dobson or fourth-rounder Josh Boyce would have to step up to take the starting role from Jenkins.
It turns out, everyone underrated the undrafted Thompkins.
It was natural to do so, too. Thompkins looked good in OTAs and minicamp, but those are unpadded practices run at three-quarter speed. The 25-year-old rookie had floated around in college, being tied to Morgan State, Palomar Community College, El Camino Community College, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Cincinnati, though he only actually played at El Camino and Cincinnati.
Thompkins’ seasons at the FBS level with the Bearcats didn’t set himself apart, either. He caught 78 passes in two seasons with 1,077 yards and four touchdowns. He only had two career 100-yard games (one coming his junior season and another his senior year).
But you wouldn’t know Thompkins lacked production at the amateur level from watching him with the Patriots. On Saturday, as the Patriots suited up in blue and white jerseys for a scrimmage, Thompkins was out there in white, across from Danny Amendola and playing with Tom Brady, while fellow rookies Dobson and Boyce were out in blue, forced to play with Tim Tebow.
While Dosbon excels on the big play, going up over defenders with his leaping skills and deep speed, he struggles to make more intricate cuts in his route running. And while Boyce’s strengths lie in his agility, route running and speed out of breaks, he’ll struggle at contending for the ball in air.
Thompkins appears to excel in all areas through eight practices. He had no trouble getting open in the short field, due to his quick feet and precise cuts and he has a penchant for big plays, whether it’s cruising down the field past defenders for a deep ball or winning an in-air jump ball.
Thompkins doesn’t have the elite height for an “X” receiver, but at nearly 6-foot-1, he’s certainly tall enough. He ran an unofficial 4.46-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine and churned out impressive 6.88 3-cone and 4.21 20-yard shuttle times.
Those numbers are fun to look at, but if he keeps it up on the practice field, they really don’t matter much. And as he’s outplaying Dobson and Boyce, it’s obvious where they were drafted (or not) doesn’t matter, either.
Bill Belichick has given all of his rookie and veteran receivers an equal chance to earn a spot on the roster and slot on the depth chart. Thompkins is getting just as many first-team reps as Dobson during drills, and more than Boyce or Jenkins at this point.
Perhaps what was most impressive was how Thompkins dealt with adversity, which is something he is used to. Thompkins struggled under the lights of Gillette Stadium Monday night, but bounced back to have one of his best practices Tuesday, catching jump balls over Logan Ryan and Devin McCourty. He was just as impressive Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Thompkins was arrested seven times before his 19th birthday, but has turned his life around since. His rap sheet is what scared NFL teams off from drafting him, according to the Boston Herald, but his head coach at Cincinnati, Butch Jones, helped him sign on with the Patriots. Thompkins’ cousin, Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, is who originally hooked the wideout up with Jones.
Thompkins doesn’t say much when speaking to the media — about his past or in general. He spouts off Belichick-ian phrases like “football is football” and “camp is camp.” But, not to overuse a cliche, he lets his play on the field do the talking.
Obviously, it’s still early. There’s more than a month — including four preseason games — before the Patriots season starts. But if the season started today, it would likely be Thompkins lining up across from Amendola with the first-team offense in the “X” role. Dobson and Boyce could still outshine Thompkins during preseason games, but at this point they’re playing catch-up.
Photo via Twitter/SteveB7SFG