It isn’t often that the inactive list for a given game causes genuine surprise, but that was the case Sunday around 3:15 p.m. when the Patriots inactives for their game with Pittsburgh were posted on Twitter.
Aqib Talib and Leon Washington weren’t really expected to play, and Steve Beauharnais and Jake Bequette have only been in uniform once or twice this season.
But to see receiver Kenbrell Thompkins among the seven players who wouldn’t be in uniform to face the Steelers was unexpected.
The rookie receiver, undrafted out of Cincinnati, looked to be ahead of his position classmates, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, when the season started. That idea was reinforced during the opener against Buffalo when Dobson was a healthy scratch and Boyce played just 15 snaps, but Thompkins was on the field for 91 of the Patriots’ 95 offensive snaps that afternoon and was targeted 14 times by Tom Brady (he had four catches).
Thompkins had a two-touchdown game against Tampa Bay, 127 yards on six catches plus a touchdown in New England’s win in Atlanta, and he caught the winning touchdown in the last-minute victory over the Saints in Week 6. He had experienced some hiccups — double-catching balls, leaving his feet when he didn’t need to, and recording a couple of drops — but it also seemed as though he had the trust of Brady, a definite plus.
In Week 8 against the Dolphins, however, Thompkins’s reps were limited — he played just 14 of 68 snaps — and then came Sunday’s scratch.
During a conference call on Monday, Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked if perhaps Thompkins’s development has leveled off, leading to his not playing.
“I think KT is still making good progress and working hard,” Belichick said. “I haven’t seen any letup in his effort level or trying to do things that he knows he needs to do. I think he’ll continue to improve and help our football team.”
Austin Collie’s arrival and apparent quick acclimation into the offense may be affecting Thompkins’s playing time — Collie got the start against the Dolphins when Thompkins saw more time on the sideline, though Collie played just about half of the snaps that day.
Thompkins has not been listed on the injury report, nor is it believed that there has been a disciplinary issue with the Florida native.
Belichick continued that the team went with the 46 players it felt would give it the best chance to win against the Steelers, without elaborating as to why Thompkins was not in that number.
“We’ll do that same thing every week. However that turns out, it will be a week-to-week decision for everybody,” Belichick said.
“I don’t think anybody has lost any confidence in KT, I certainly haven’t. I think he’s made a lot of improvement this year. He continues to work hard and I think he will continue to make it.”
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels echoed the thought that there isn’t a change in how the coaching staff feels about Thompkins, though he did say that game-day personnel decisions are Belichick’s call.
“I think that each week there are so many things that go into a game plan and so many decisions that are made based on special teams or what packages people are using offensively or defensively or what we need to have up for the game in terms of our depth,’’ McDaniels said. “I think Kenbrell, there’s been no real change in terms of what we’ve seen from different guys.
“I think everybody is working hard and contributing in practice and then whatever ends up happening at the end of the week and the way that Bill decides to go with it, it’s really his choice and his decision based on how he sees the game being played. I’ll leave that up to him.”
For the season, Thompkins has 23 receptions for 334 yards and four touchdowns.