AFTER an excellent preseason earned him the trust of Tom Brady, and thus earned him the opportunity to begin his rookie season as one of the Patriots’ starting receivers, Kenbrell Thompkins’ pro debut appeared to be a disappointment.
He failed to drag his second foot on what should’ve been an easy-by-NFL-standards sideline catch. He didn’t leave himself enough room to come down with a reception at the back of the end zone. He didn’t keep his feet moving to work himself open on what could’ve been another touchdown. And several times the breaks on his routes appeared to be sloppy and slow.
As a result, only four of the 14 passes Brady flung in Thompkins’ direction were completed, and those team-high targets produced a grand total of 42 yards — 20 of which came on one catch midway through the second quarter. Covered by sixth-year cornerback Leodis McKelvin for much of the afternoon, there was never much question who in that matchup had experience playing at this level.
But that shouldn’t be a reason for the Patriots to run from Thompkins, or even to reduce his role. Because while much is made about the difficulty rookie quarterbacks have historically dealt with while adjusting to life in the NFL, it’s not typically an easy transition for receivers, either.
The speed of the competition in coverage, the complexities of route recognition, the physicality of the corners — it’s all unlike anything a young wideout has faced before, with even the exhibition season unable to mimic what it’s like when the games count for real. That’s why for all the frustration Thompkins experienced Sunday, league-wide only one of his fellow rookie receivers had more catches, while only two had more yards.
And it’s not as though that reflects a poor first-year class at the position.
Over the past two seasons, 26 different receivers have gained at least 1,000 yards in a campaign. None of them has been rookies, which says something in itself. But more telling in comparison to Thompkins is how each of those players performed in the first game of his rookie season.
Of the 26, 10 either didn’t play at all in the first game of their pro career, or didn’t have a catch. Only three caught more than five passes — Houston’s Andre Johnson (six), Denver’s Demaryius Thomas (eight) and Dallas’ Dez Bryant (eight) — although Thomas followed up his eight-catch, 97-yard debut by failing to exceed three catches or 51 yards in any game the rest of his rookie season.
On average, the first contest for those eventual 1,000-yard receivers was 2.2 catches for 28 yards, and even when counting only those who actually factored into the offense in their debuts, the averages were 3.6 catches for 46 yards.
Which is basically what Thompkins gave the Patriots on Sunday.
And which is why the Patriots see that afternoon’s flaws as part of the progression, not necessarily a problem.
“It’s not just one player. It’s not just K.T. It’s all of us that have to work harder to communicate, to be on the same page,” Brady said during his weekly Monday interview on WEEI radio. “When you’re in the first week of the year, there’s a lot of things that we can do better. There’s a lot of things that aren’t right yet.”
The Patriots can only hope Thompkins’ second week goes the way of Bengals standout A.J. Green, whose lone grab in his debut was a 41-yard bomb, but came back a game later to snag 10 balls for 124 yards. That might be asking a lot with such little time to learn and implement the necessary improvements before the Jets get to Foxborough, Mass., on Thursday night. And generally it’s going to take time for Thompkins, Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson to be consistent factors.
But let that time elapse. Because just as those preseason games weren’t apparently enough to prepare Thompkins for the challenge he faced at Buffalo, nor should that single performance against the Bills be enough to erase the potential he’d shown over the weeks leading up.
“This is my first time really playing a meaningful game with a lot of these guys,” Brady said. “These are things you learn under fire and you’ve got to end up going through them and learning from them, and hopefully you can be better every single week out there.”
AN INJURY that might mean playing someone sooner than they’re ready could be the reported hamstring strain that Zach Sudfeld incurred. He didn’t play in the fourth quarter, and without him Michael Hoomanawanui is the only healthy tight end on the roster.
Could that mean the sooner-than-expected — and perhaps sooner-than-really-ready — return of Rob Gronkowski?
THE EFFORT by the Patriots’ defense Sunday might’ve been overlooked a bit because of the focus on the offense, but they’re deserving of credit. Not only did they keep Bills weapon C.J. Spiller to 2.5 yards per touch, Buffalo had only one drive longer than either six plays or 37 yards, and after the Pats fell behind they yielded the Bills only 74 yards on five offensive series.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.