Bad wouldn’t begin to describe the Patriots’ performance on the whole on Thursday night, but Tom Brady still found a way to give it a silver lining.
Four turnovers from the first-team offense, including a Brady interception and a trio of fumbles, highlighted the night’s offensive woes. Yet, Brady, who only played the first half, still managed to put a positive spin on the effort.
He completed 16 of 24 passes for 185 yards, including that second-quarter pick, on nine drives. But, well beyond the somewhat pedestrian — at least for Brady — stats was the continued development between he and rookie receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson.
Thompkins, who’s been a constant fixture throughout the preseason, enjoyed a breakout performance in the game, catching eight passes for 116 yards and consistently making the Lions’ top corner combo, Chris Houston and Darius Slay, look like chumps on the outside. His connection with Brady has been developing all preseason, as No. 12 has looked his way often in each of New England’s three games, and it finally seemed to come to a head in Detroit.
With Danny Amendola out, someone in the Patriots’ receiving corps was going to have to step up, and Thompkins was that guy. Brady hooked up with Thompkins six times for 93 yards in the game, looking the rookie’s way on nine of his 24 passes and even connecting with him on a sweet 37-yard pitch-and-catch over the top of Slay for the Patriots’ play of the night. Thompkins was reliable with his hands, barring one inexcusable drop, ran clean and precise routes and even worked well getting off press coverage at the line. He excelled in pretty much every facet of the game, aside from blocking, where he still needs to take better angles in the running game. Even still, you can say with most definite conviction that Thompkins is the Patriots’ No. 2 receiver, behind Amendola, heading into the season.
That No. 2 receiver role was originally expected to fall to Patriots second-round pick Aaron Dobson rather than the undrafted Thompkins, but clearly things in the NFL can change quickly. After an underwhelming preseason on the whole, Dobson had easily the best performance of his young NFL career on Thursday. He caught four passes for 50 yards, including three for 37 yards from Brady.
Dobson is still having trouble breaking off of press coverage at the line, which could be plainly seen on a fourth-down pass to the goal line from Ryan Mallett late in the game. He also struggled to create any real separation out in space yet again on Thursday. Dobson continues to run tight, crisp routes on the outside, but he still seems to have issues exerting his strength or speed to help create space.
Even while Dobson clearly has some deficiencies at this point, his chemistry with Brady is clearly growing with each passing week. Brady was able to connect with him on some well-timed comeback routes, which is a good sign for the highly anticipated rookie heading into the final week of the preseason.
With a little over one week left until roster cutdowns, there’s no question that the Patriots have some work left to do before Bill Belichick will be fully comfortable trotting his offense out there and expecting mistake-free football. But, in the meantime at least, Brady’s development with Dobson — and, to a much greater extent, Thompkins — are encouraging signs that the good times aren’t too far off in the distance.