If there was any doubt Kenbrell Thompkins was going to be starting Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills, that uncertainty should be washed away after his performance against the Detroit Lions Thursday night.
As the rest of the offense coughed up the ball and couldn’t gain separation from Lions defenders, Thompkins rose above, catching 8 of 12 targets for 116 yards. Only two of those incompletions were catchable for the 6-foot, 195-pound undrafted rookie.
Thompkins doesn’t just impress on the stat sheet, either. He gains separation with his strength and quick feet at the line of scrimmage. He’s not afraid to go up and over defenders, nor will he shy away from contact in competing for a pass over the middle.
Thompkins can play any receiver position in the offense, but he’ll be starting at the almighty X receiver spot opposite Danny Amendola in Week 1. It’s obvious Tom Brady has confidence in the rookie, as he kept throwing to the Cincinnati product even after Thompkins had a costly drop on 3rd and 2 in the first quarter. And drops will happen to even the best wideouts.
What’s obvious about Thompkins is his beaming confidence in himself. Thompkins only shined a few times in his two years with the Bearcats and was unheralded coming out of college. Most undrafted players play with a chip on their shoulder, but Thompkins said after last week’s preseason game that’s not the case.
That’s telling. Thompkins said he’ll remember going undrafted for the rest of his life, but he’s not harboring anger over the experience. He knows he belongs in the NFL, but he’s not going to wear that chip for the rest of his life. Instead, he’ll just go out on the field like it’s any other football game he’s ever played in his life.
For a while there, the only answer it seemed Thompkins would give reporters was “football is football.” That mentality may not work for everyone, but for Thompkins it obviously does. Thompkins won’t be shaken by a drop or by playing at a much larger stage than he’s ever been used to.
Thompkins showed his ability to rebound in training camp, too. He had a tough practice four days into the summer in the team’s annual practice under the lights at Gillette Stadium. He had a few drops and looked rusty compared to what we had come to expect in OTAs, minicamp and training camp. Ever since then, he’s been on the top of his game.
It probably helps Thompkins that he’s been the lone receiver on the team to stay completely healthy throughout the spring and summer. Amendola and Kamar Aiken are missing now, Aaron Dobson missed time during minicamp, Josh Boyce missed OTAs and minicamp, Julian Edelman missed time during OTAs, minicamp and the beginning of training camp and Quentin Sims and Johnathan Haggerty came to New England late.
That has given Thompkins plenty of time to work with Brady and gain that vaunted trust. He started receiving first-team snaps during minicamp when there weren’t many other players to throw out with Brady. Since then, Thompkins has refused to relinquish that spot on the depth chart.
When asked last week how good he could be, Thompkins would only respond that “time will tell.” We may know sooner than later as it appears Thompkins is playing exponentially better than we ever expected.
One of the biggest questions coming into the season was who would replace Brandon Lloyd at the X receiver spot. No one expected that player to be Thompkins, but based on his offseason so far, that question may be laughable after long. Lloyd was a solid player for the Patriots, but Thompkins looks set to take his role and expand on it.
Obviously it’s a long season, but at this point, no one else on the Patriots’ roster looks primed to overtake Thompkins’ starting role this year. Dobson still has trouble gaining separation with his route running and strength and Boyce isn’t the same kind of consistent weapon. Edelman will work in the slot and the Z and Slater is a special teamer.
No one expects an undrafted wide receiver to come in and start right away. And it’s easy to temper expectations because Thompkins was not selected in any of the seven rounds this April. But based on what he has done this spring and summer, expectations should be just as high for Thompkins as they are for any of the 28 players taken at the position during the draft.
The Patriots have had trouble drafting wide receivers ever since Deion Branch came to town, so it’s only fitting they hit big on an undrafted player at the position.