FOXBOROUGH — To help his mind stay focused on the task at hand, whatever that may be, Kenbrell Thompkins keeps a calendar in his living room. It’s the kind with the large daily squares, big enough for Thompkins to make hand-written notations, which he often does.
He scribbles the occasional non-football reminder, such as “family time.” But most of Thompkins’s calendar notes are work-related. The rookie receiver for the Patriots is constantly updating and prioritizing his to-do list.
“Extra study time,” “stretching,” and “massage day” are just a few of the notes Thompkins has jotted down, all in an attempt to stick to a plan and keep himself grounded.
With the kind of season Thompkins has had, that hasn’t been easy. Despite being undrafted out of the University of Cincinnati, it took Thompkins just three games before he caught his first NFL touchdown pass (he had two that day against the Buccaneers). The next week, he bagged his first 100-yard receiving game.
The Patriots’ play of the year so far — a last-second, winning touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Thompkins — followed against the Saints, the high point to Thompkins’s first season.
More recently, there have been lows. Thompkins had his snap count drastically reduced two games ago, when he was on the field for only 13 plays against the Dolphins. Then, in the Patriots’ most recent game, against the Steelers, he didn’t play at all. Thompkins was a healthy scratch, one of seven inactive players.
He has taken it all in stride. The good and the bad.
“Playing this game, you’ve got to be mentally tough,” Thompkins said after Tuesday’s practice. “It’s about being steady because sometimes you’re going to have bad days and things are not going to go the way you had planned. Those are the days when your true character shows.
“You know me, I’m a happy-go-lucky guy, so blessed and so thankful to be here. I feel like I don’t have a reason to hold my head down about the lows, it’s just about fixing them.”
After being a big part of the offense through the first seven games, when he had at least two catches in each, Thompkins acknowledged that the team’s decision to sit him against the Steelers was a surprise.
“It caught me off-guard and it was a learning experience, but it wasn’t upsetting because the team was victorious,” he said. “I know that Bill [Belichick] and the rest of the coaching staff will go with the guys who they feel give us the best chance to win, and that’s exactly what they did.”
Roles in the NFL can change, with injuries, opportunity, and production playing their part. Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, and fellow rookie Aaron Dobson are healthy and playing well, giving the Patriots three solid targets at wide receiver.
But some plays call for four, so the Patriots need a No. 4 receiver.
Since Austin Collie was released after being injured against the Steelers, and the only other receivers on the active roster are Josh Boyce (one catch), Matthew Slater (zero), and recent addition LaQuan Williams, Thompkins should have a chance to see the field more, starting Monday night at Carolina.
Speaking to reporters on a Monday teleconference, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels made it sound as though the top three receivers were set, barring something unexpected. But he also said there’s definitely a need for more.
“The guys that have been active the last couple weeks, with [Dobson] and Julian and Danny, being able to try to have some consistency in terms of the things we are doing with those guys,” McDaniels said. “And then, KT and Josh Boyce will also, I would say, factor into the competition in terms of who is active and how we go about forming the game plan.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that have played in different roles and different spots.”
Thompkins has 23 receptions for 334 yards and four touchdowns, but hasn’t caught a game pass since Oct. 20, when he had two for 16 yards against the Jets. He said he’ll use the drought as motivation. But that’s not all.
“I’m a guy that wakes up motivated,” Thompkins said. “I’m motivated every day, about the good and the bad. Even if I have a good game or a big play, I get motivated about that because I know I can make another one.”
He has developed chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady, who targeted Thompkins 39 times in the first four games, but just 16 times over the next five.
“What helped me with Tom was going out and being hungry for an opportunity, and I think he saw that in me early and it helped us build a close relationship,” Thompkins said. “It’s a great experience to have a guy like him throwing me the ball.”
The recent drop in playing time isn’t related to any injury, at least not to Thompkins. Amendola and tight end Rob Gronkowski missed a combined 10 games early in the season, so Thompkins was someone the Patriots needed. Now that more players are healthy, the offensive focus has changed. It can result in fewer snaps, fewer balls to catch, or even a game spent in street clothes.
Thompkins is fine with it, at least outwardly. He is contributing to a 7-2 team that appears headed to the playoffs, and he already has proven plenty of people wrong by making the team, then earning a spot on the 53-man roster. Those were the first two goals he wrote down after he signed in May. Many more have followed.
“It’s not about proving people wrong, it’s about proving myself right,” said Thompkins. “If I set a goal, I want to make sure I can prove it. It’s not about me impressing anyone because the people that are praising you today can be the same ones blaming you tomorrow.
“I just try to impress myself, by sticking to my word and going out there and doing what I say I would do.
“I never doubted my ability to play on this level. All I wanted was a chance, and I was fortunate to get a chance here. I believe in myself and that keeps me going.”