NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
On his second offensive drive against the Philadelphia Eagles’ first-team defense, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to converted 7-of-8 passes for 65 yards and a touchdown.
No. 12 didn’t hold much back in the Aug. 9 preseason opener.
After handing the ball off six consecutive times on New England’s first drive, Brady distributed the ball to four different receivers on his second drive. He hit free-agent acquisition Danny Amendola for six yards. He hit rookie second-round pick Aaron Dobson for 23 yards. He capped it off by hitting third-year running back Shane Vereen for 13 yards.
Yet over the course of a seven-play sequence, Brady hit another target four times.
That target was Kenbrell Thompkins.
A former El Camino College and University of Cincinnati wide receiver, Thompkins story is quickly becoming a well-documented one. He didn’t hear his name called in April’s draft, but Thompkins’ early-and-often performance on Friday night went a long way towards verifying what the early part of training camp already suggested:
Brady likes him.
Now four receptions for 23 yards may not set the 25-year-old apart on the stat sheet. When you look at the tape, however, it’s clear that a connection between the QB and the 6’0”, 195-pound pass-catcher is building.
It’s a connection of timing and trust.
3rd-and-4: Comeback Route
As the Patriots braved a third-down with nine minutes left in the first quarter, the offense operated out of “11” personnel with one halfback and one tight end. The Philadelphia defense countered with a 3-3 sub package to defend the pass.
At the “X” receiver position was Thompkins, who was set to fend off the press coverage of Eagles cornerback Bradley Fletcher while running a comeback pattern.
When Brady took the snap out of shotgun from center Ryan Wendell, he immediately gazed Thompkins’ way. Being the first option, the pressure was on Thompkins to effectively stutter-step and speed-release his corner.
The route-runner planted his foot outside, maintained a 75-degree lean despite direction change, and dipped his shoulder. Those three factors forced Fletcher back on his heels.
Thompkins got up to pace and was six yards downfield within one second of the ball being snapped.
The rookie kept his arms flexed before extending his hands to the outside shoulder of Fletcher. Anticipating a window, Brady delivered the ball to where he wanted his receiver to be. In turn, Thompkins pivoted back the way he came to be there.
He was focused on the ball. And Fletcher – whose momentum drifted – couldn’t see the ball soon enough.
Brady’s pass zeroed in, just as Thompkins jumped out to shield the defender away. He reeled it in and wrapped it up before getting tackled.
The arrow to the left sideline resulted in a six-yard gain. But more importantly, it resulted in a fresh set of downs because Brady and Thompkins were on the same page.
2nd-and-5: Comeback Route
Two plays later, following a Stevan Ridley carry, New England kept up the pace with a five-wide set. The empty backfield made the Eagles thin in linebacker territory, as they front rushed four down linemen.
Thompkins was prepped to take advantage of the soft cushion with another comeback route. On this occasion, he did so from the seam – a territory that safety Nate Allen and linebacker DeMeco Ryans were responsible for.
As the snap was handled, the inside receiver scurried with high knees and pendulum arms. His body language was indicative of a “9” route more so than a comeback route. And that deception played into Thompkins’ favor.
Thompkins shortened his steps through his turn. He came to a full stop and twisted back just as Brady unleashed a pass to his first read.
Thompkins crouched and squared to the incoming pass. Even though the ball was a low one, his palms were pointed up. He was in location to field it cleanly.
Ryans and Allen closed Thompkins off before the first-down marker. It was good for a short pickup of four yards. Nonetheless, the Patriots still found themselves with a very negotiable third down.
1st-and-10: In Route
Three plays later, the Patriots were combating a 1st-and-10 with “12” personnel. As two tight ends abutted the left side of the offensive line, fellow greenhorn Josh Boyce set up at the “Z” spot while Thompkins stood outside the numbers.
The call from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was a play-action. Thompkins was orchestrated to run a short in route right through the teeth of Philadelphia’s 4-2 alignment.
Brady inherited the ball from center and dropped back to sell the Brandon Bolden handoff. As he did so, Boyce stretched cornerback Brandon Boykin out of the flats.
That manipulation freed up the underneath for Thompkins to run his itinerary opposite cornerback Brandon Hughes.
Thompkins’ inside route was preceded by the jitter of an out route. He sold it.
The savvy runner switched course and stayed parallel with the hashes. His consolidated body control minimized wasted movement and maximized acceleration.
Brady saw the void.
Thompkins stayed on the line with great balance as Brady’s pass sailed in. His hand-eye coordination kept him from slowing down through the catch.
He inhaled the ball and he was able to cut up swiftly.
Hughes wrapped him up after seven yards. It was enough to bring New England inside the red zone.
2nd-and-3: Quick Screen
On the next play, the Patriots functioned out of “12” personnel with Thompkins serving as the split end. Anticipating the run, the Eagles reacted with a 4-3 “Over” front seven with a single-high safety and the corners playing off.
It was the perfect opportunity for a quick pass.
Flex tight end Michael Hoomanawanui went in motion to the weak side, disguising the true identity of the play call.
In a split second, Brady took the snap and fired it to Thompkins. Simultaneously, Thompkins swung his right foot off the line of scrimmage to face Brady.
Fletcher was 10 yards away.
The pass reached Thompkins’ ready hands and was tucked into his possession. With fluidity, he swiveled and caught his coverage in a moment of indecision.
Thompkins sunk his pad level and veered right. He sliced between the corner and the linebackers on his way past the 15-yard line.
He was brought down, just not before he recorded six yards after the catch and his second first-down conversion of the tilt. A play later, the Patriots got into the end zone for a TD.
Thompkins went on to log 31 snaps during the 31-22 win over the Eagles. He was in the mix for 43 percent of the offense’s plays, according to Pro Football Focus.
Yet for all intents and purposes, his day was over when Brady’s was. The Miami, Fla., native was utilized as the first read on all four instances the future Hall of Famer targeted him. He wasn’t thrown at again once Ryan Mallett and Tim Tebow took over.
That speaks volumes.
Now Thompkins may not have outstanding measurables. He may not have excellent upper-body strength. He may not be a game-breaker. He may not have the highest ceiling, either.
But in terms of timing and trust, Thompkins is a man of consistency.
And in order to coincide with Brady’s passing attack, that’s precisely what he needs to be.