Kenbrell Thompkins has had many opportunities to separate himself from the pack. On Sunday, he did so twice, in very different ways, with both moves showing that the best of the Patriots’ many young wide receivers just needs time to fulfill his promise.
Thompkins had several great catches in Sunday’s game and was New England’s biggest weapon on offense, catching six passes for 127 yards and a touchdown. His finest moment came in the fourth quarter, when he caught an 18-yard touchdown pass over his shoulder on a perfectly placed ball from Tom Brady. On a catch extremely reminiscent of the overturned touchdown two weeks before against the Jets, when Thompkins had the ball underneath him as he landed (losing the touchdown due to the ball touching the ground), Thompkins instead rolled his body this time. He was able to preserve the catch and staked the Patriots to a 14-point lead that gave them the cushion needed to later escape with the win.
But while Thompkins’ big fourth-quarter catch was a pivotal moment for the rookie wide receiver, who has struggled with positioning and drops as he’s jumped into the Patriots’ offense this season, the big touchdown was actually the lesser of the two ways Thompkins put himself above his peers Sunday.
The real defining moment came in the third quarter, when Brady called the number of Thompkins’ fellow rookie, Aaron Dobson. Brady rifled a pass into the middle of the end zone, where Dobson fought off clinging Falcons defenders to try to make a touchdown catch. Instead, he was sandwiched in a horrific manner, his head getting twisted back violently and his neck stretching. Dobson went to the ground in pain on the play, and he was eventually removed from the game.
But as Dobson went down and the trainers came in, another Patriot was close — Thompkins. The player who is finding his way as Brady’s new favorite target also made a move as a teammate. Thompkins and Dobson, linked throughout camp and through the rough beginning of the season as the rookie wide receivers, were together again.
Dobson’s stats haven’t been as flashy as Thompkins’, and he’s also had on-field gaffes, from some very poor drops to messing up routes. But there are also reasons he’s out there the last few weeks, and it’s not just because other receivers are hurt, or because Josh Boyce hasn’t proved himself yet. The Patriots have looked to pin their receiving future on Dobson and Thompkins, and with the ability both rookies have shown, it’s not a bad idea.
In fact, if Thompkins and Dobson show the same steady progression over the rest of the season that they’ve shown in just four games so far, they could start getting attention similar to that of the duo that was once heralded as the great young hope for New England: tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
Now, no one is suggesting Dobson and Thompkins have the talent of Hernandez or Gronkowski, who each had an argument in his unique skill set to go down as one of the greatest tight ends of all time if he kept improving or simply stayed on the field. (How things change.)
But where Thompkins and Dobson are similar to Gronkowski-Hernandez is that both appear primed to excel within the Patriots’ system. New England hand-picked them and kept them out of camp for who they can become, not for who they are now. The development of both into targets that can fit seamlessly into what Brady needs out of his receivers is reminiscent of how Hernandez and Gronkowski immediately looked like just what Brady was missing when they produced from the get-go in New England.
Brady was already showing glimpses of what that can mean Sunday, when he dusted off a few types of throws that he hasn’t always been able to use. From his fade to Thompkins to the couple of times he went for huge downfield throws, Brady showed he’s still ready to throw passes with high degrees of difficulty, if only there are hands to catch them.
Brady seems to always be bitten by the lack of something on offense, even in the years when he puts up eye-popping stats. He had great tight end options in his early years, with just a couple of dependable receivers. In the seasons when he’s had excellent wide receivers, the Patriots were suddenly out of good receiving tight ends.
New England appears to be in that mode again, at least until Gronkowski comes back and proves to be healthy (suddenly an awesome prospect, considering that Brady and the rest of the offense have really gotten themselves tuned up in Gronkowski’s absence). It’s not a bad place to be, though — whatever the Patriots saw in their young receivers coming out of camp has only proven itself true this year.
Thompkins and Dobson have a lot left to work on, and much to prove. But their advancement so far — and their improvement together — makes them a pairing that is sure to help the Patriots forget about the doomed promise of two others who haven’t been able to live up to expectations as a potentially dynamic duo.