There wasn’t much to cheer about during New England’s blowout loss to the Detroit Lions at Ford Field last Thursday. But if one could find the silver lining in the smack down in Mo-Town, it would be rookie wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins.
Thompkins was the Patriots’ star of the night, hauling in eight catches for 116 yards, including a pair of big gains for 37 and 27 yards respectively.
The 25-year-old, who went undrafted out of Cincinnati, has already established himself as one of Tom Brady’s favorite new pass catchers.
"Since [Thompkins] got here he's been so willing and eager to do whatever it takes," said Brady during his postgame press conference. "He's done a great job."
Thompkins has enjoyed several reps both in practice and during games; he was targeted 12 times on Thursday night.
According to Pro Football Focus, Thompkins has participated in 120 of the 226 (53 percent) offensive snaps for the Patriots this preseason, trailing only second-round pick Aaron Dobson, who has played 139.
He also leads all New England receivers with 13 grabs for 142 yards in preseason play.
But perhaps what is most impressive about Thompkins is his ability to grasp the complex Patriots offense in such a short amount of time. Remember, veteran receivers Joey Galloway—who had a brief stint in New England in 2009—and Chad Ochocinco (2011) both struggled with the playbook and it showed in their lack of on-field production.
Thompkins has shown an ability to consistently get off the line in press coverage, creating space between himself and defenders.
But what makes him so valuable is his versatility. In the absence of Danny Amendola on Thursday night, Thompkins worked out of the slot as well as at his familiar position at split-end.
He could very well find himself in the role occupied by Deion Branch during his prime years with the Patriots—a reliable pass-catcher who can run crisp, intermediate routes while occasionally stretching the field.
Despite his recent success, Thompkins’ path to the NFL was not easy.
He had a relatively underwhelming collegiate career (78 receptions for 1,077 yards and four touchdowns in two years at Cincinnati), and dealt with several legal issues (seven arrests before his 19th birthday). As a result he did not get the call on draft day (or the days that followed) and was forced to sign as an undrafted—and in his mind, an unwanted—free agent.
"It’s just definitely a moment that I’ll remember for the rest of my life," said Thompkins when asked about the draft. "Pretty much just sitting there waiting for that phone call and not to get it. That’s a guy’s dream, to hear their name get called. And for it not to get called, that’s just something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life."
But a once murky future in the NFL is now looking bright for Kenbrell Thompkins. After an outstanding training camp and preseason, he is a lock to make the 53-man roster.
And if Thompkins continues to produce at a high level, expect him to be a key cog in the New England offense in 2013.