Their task is simple, Kenbrell Thompkins says.
“As a wide receiver, that’s our job: To catch the ball,” Thompkins, the Patriots’ second-year receiver, said Friday after training camp practice. “Wherever the quarterback puts the ball, it’s our job to make sure we come down with the catch.”
On Thursday, Thompkins made a diving catch in the corner of the end zone over rookie safety Jemea Thomas. Then on Friday, he laid out again, this time against Darrelle Revis, for another touchdown. The crowd roared.
“It’s Day 2,” Thompkins said. “We’ve got a long way to go.”
Thompkins, undrafted out of Cincinnati last season, experienced a rookie ascent that was nearly as fast as his 4.54-second 40-yard dash time.
In the third game, he caught two touchdown passes in the Patriots’ 23-3 win over the Buccaneers. One week later, against the Falcons, he had his best game: six catches, 127 yards, and a touchdown. Then, in New England’s 30-27 win over the Saints in Week 6, Thompkins caught Brady’s winning 17-yard touchdown pass with five seconds left. Half of his touchdowns came in the fourth quarter.
In the second half of the season, though, he played in only four games and had just nine receptions. After he had little influence in New England’s 43-22 win over the Colts in the divisional playoff game, he didn’t play in the loss to the Broncos in the AFC title game. His final reception of 2013 came in Week 13 against the Texans.
He’s learned from that, he says.
“It’s very humbling just to be out here, to play on this level,” said Thompkins, who finished 2013 with 32 catches for 466 yards and four touchdowns.
For now, though, Thompkins has no expectations for the coming season.
“I haven’t even got that far yet,” he said. “I’m just trying to make sure that I’m preparing for camp and looking forward to tomorrow.”
The biggest difference between being a rookie and a second-year pro, he said, is instinctual. His understanding of fundamentals has progressed, and he trusts himself more.
“A lot of things slowed down for me,” he said.
Belichick said Thompkins has a strong work rate — four times in one answer.
“Hard-working kid. Hard-working kid,” the coach said. “One of our hardest workers. Really tries hard to do everything right. Very attentive. Very coachable. He’s very hard-working.”
Thompkins’s post-practice routine is straightforward and forward-looking: “Watch practice film, get my lifts out of the way, make sure I’m fueling my body, make sure I’m eating good, and make sure I’m doing the right things to get ready for tomorrow.”
The receiver said his offseason — “a lot of lifting and a lot of running” — plus another year of experience have proven invaluable.
“It’s just a dramatic difference [between training camps],” Thompkins said. “You know a lot of things, and a lot of things that we do, you look forward to, and you can anticipate them, when a lot of the young guys pretty much don’t know what’s going on.”
And, of course, working with Brady has only eased the 25-year-old’s transition into Year 2.
“Listening to Tom and hearing the thoughts that he has — it’s always good to have another set of eyes to actually see what you don’t see,” he said.
“It just might be some miscommunication, and we’ll straighten that on the field. And hopefully when we run it next time, we’ll correct it.”
On Saturday, when the Patriots pull on pads for the first time, maybe Thompkins will make another lithe, corner-of-the-end-zone catch. Or maybe he won’t. Either way, he will relish the long-awaited contact.
“Ah, pads should be fun,” Thompkins said, smiling. “We’ve got a lot of guys actually anticipating it. We get the chance to see how physical the guys get. Should be real fun.”
His understated duty — “to catch the ball” — hasn’t changed, but the receiver has.
“I’m in a good place mentally,” Thompkins said. “I’ve still got a long way to go.”Rob Harms can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @harms__way.