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For unproven players, the preseason matters. It matters for guys like Marcus Easley, David Gettis, Kealoha Pilares, Aldrick Robinson, Zach  Line, Michael Cox, Isaiah Pead, and Daryl Richardson.

And it really matter for rookie undrafted free agents, guys like Zach Sudfeld and Kenbrell Thompkins. While the RotoViz guys have written a lot on Sudfeld, we haven’t written much about Thompkins, except to note that Thompkins is receiving snaps with the starters. I think we haven’t written more about Thompkins because, well, he didn’t give us much to say about him coming into the NFL. Whereas Sudfeld proved himself in college to be a beast in the red zone, Thompkins didn’t really prove himself to be anything except an old rookie on whom his coaches at Cincinnati refused to rely. In short, we haven’t said much up to this point because Thompkins really hadn’t given us anything to say.

(And in all fairness, I should note that while the stat geeks didn’t see Thompkins coming at least one tape grinder did. As I’ve said before, I think analytics will be at its best when the stat geeks and tape grinders supplement each other’s work.)

Now, after two preseason games, we have something to say about the rookie UDFA. Barring an unexpected late-preseason surge by Aaron Dobson (or Josh Boyce), Kenbrell Thompkins will be the Patriots’ starting #2 WR. While some people think of this as the starting X spot, I tend to think of this position differently, since the Patriots often move players around in highly inventive ways. When I think of Thompkins, I don’t see a guy playing the X (or split end) position. I see a guy who is reprising the role played by Deion Branch, Chad Ochocinco, and Brandon Lloyd the last few years—and perhaps even by Branch and Reche Caldwell before Randy Moss arrived in New England. In general, Thompkins isn’t the Patriots’ next X receiver. He’s their next Branch/Ochocinco/Lloyd (BOL) function. The question is this: Which guy is he? Deion Branch? (And which Deion Branch?) Or will he simply be another Chad Johnson?

The Branch/Ochocinco/Lloyd (BOL) Function

Before answering that larger question, let’s first look at how the “BOL function” has done since Branch returned to New England in 2010.

Year

Name

G

Rec

Yds

Y/R

TD

R/G

Y/G

PR

2010

Deion Branch

11

48

706

14.7

5

4.4

64.2

30

2010

Branch Prorated

16

69.82

1026.909

14.7

7.27

4.4

64.2

19

2011

Chad Johnson

15

15

276

18.4

1

1

18.4

105

2011

Deion Branch

15

51

702

13.8

5

3.4

46.8

42

2011

Branch/Johnson

16

66

978

14.82

6

4.13

61.13

NA

2012

Deion Branch

10

16

145

9.1

0

1.6

14.5

136

2012

Brandon Lloyd

16

74

911

12.3

4

4.6

56.9

34

2012

Branch/Johnson

16

90

1056

11.73

4

5.63

66

NA

Per Year Avg

Total Composite

16.00

75.27

1020.30

13.55

5.76

4.70

63.77

NA

In general, about 1000 yards and 5-6 TDs per year are available for distribution to the BOL function. How that production will be distributed in 2013 will determine how valuable Thompkins becomes. In 2010, that production pretty much went straight to Branch once he replaced the departed Randy Moss. In 2011 and 2012, the BOL function was split asymmetrically between two players: in 2011 between Branch and Johnson, and in 2012 between Lloyd and Branch. As result, we can see roughly what Thompkins’ future could hold. Either he could be 2010 Deion Branch, winning the job outright and relegating Dobson and Boyce to the bench. Finishing with a PR in the 19-30 range, he could a WR2 or WR3. Or he could become 2011 Branch and 2012 Lloyd, the dominant player in a BOL function timeshare, finishing as a low-end WR3 or high-end WR4 with a PR in the 34-42 range.

Although they represent a difference of no more than a few fantasy points per game, those two distinct outcomes for Thompkins’ 2013 season are crucially dissimilar. If Thompkins seizes ownership of the BOL function, then he will be a sleeper WR who can actually be plugged into lineups. He will be usable and thus incredibly valuable. But if Thompkins merely leads a committee of WRs who collectively fill the BOL function, then he’ll be a sleeper WR who provides (limited) value on the bench but doesn’t actually contribute to the starting lineup. That difference is huge. The first scenario makes Thompkins a guy who can help fantasy players win championships. The second makes Thompkins just a nice WR for the purposes of depth. As a result, the degree to which Thompkins dominates the BOL function—the degree to which he is targeted and Dobson and Boyce are not—is of the utmost importance.

So do we have any clues?

Tell Tom Brady that the Preseason Doesn’t Matter

Maybe the preseason doesn’t really matter, but Tom Brady seems to take it pretty f-ing seriously. Through two preseason games he’s completed 90% of his passes on four drives for 172 yards, 2 TDs, no interceptions, and a 2-point conversion. Three of the four drives ended with TDs. Even though the outcomes of the game don’t matter, Brady’s currently playing with a chip on his shoulder the combined size of Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, and Joe Flacco’s inflated contract. When his center committed a false start, Brady bitched him out. To Brady, the preseason matters, especially when it comes to developing chemistry with his new stable of WRs.

So how has Thompkins done in the preseason? Well, it seems like a mixed bag. First of all, his raw stats look bad. Through 2 games, he has 5 catches—that’s the good news—but he’s amassed only 26 yards. Out of all WRs with at least 5 preseason catches, he has the lowest total yardage, the lowest yardage per game, and the shortest “long catch” (7 yards). Ouch. And then there’s this: In game 2, Brady didn’t attempt to get him the ball—instead, Brady hooked up with Josh Boyce for 5 yards. Thompkins’ night was so uneventful that it didn’t even warrant a mention in Davis Mattek’s review of that day’s preseason action. For the game, Thompkins managed only 1 catch (on 4 targets) for 3 yards. Not good.

And yet Week 2 might just show how large Thompkins’ lead is over Dobson and Boyce in the race for the BOL function. As Mike Reiss for ESPN Boston points out, Thompkins—starting the game with Amendola in a two-receiver set—was on the field for 21 of Tom Brady’s 25 snaps, more than any receiver (even Amendola). Boyce was on the field for 9 of Brady’s snaps. Dobson? Only 2 snaps. Now, in Game 2 Thompkins’ on-field presence didn’t translate to statistical dominance, but if Thompkins continues to see the field that much more than the other rookie WRs then eventually the production is likely to follow. If he’s on the field more than any other WR, he must be developing his chemistry with Brady and making plays in practice, and that’s great news.

Also, if one looks at Thompkins’ Game 1 performance one will come away . . . well, maybe not impressed but probably encouraged. Even though he managed only 23 yards receiving, he still led the team with 4 receptions on 5 targets. More importantly, all of his receptions came from Brady. Here’s a play-by-play chart (adapted from the one available at ESPN.com) of the only drive in the game in which Brady actually attempted a pass.

New England Patriots at 9:33

Play

# Plays

Pass Att

Thompkins Rec

1st and 10 at NE 20

T.Brady pass incomplete short left to S.Ridley [F.Cox].

1

1

2nd and 10 at NE 20

T.Brady pass short left to D.Amendola to NE 26 for 6 yards (P.Chung).

2

2

3rd and 4 at NE 26

(Shotgun) T.Brady pass short left to K.Thompkins to NE 32 for 6 yards (B.Fletcher).

3

3

1

1st and 10 at NE 32

S.Ridley right tackle to NE 37 for 5 yards (M.Kendricks).

4

2nd and 5 at NE 37

(Shotgun) T.Brady pass short right to K.Thompkins to NE 41 for 4 yards (D.Ryans).

5

4

2

3rd and 1 at NE 41

S.Ridley left end to PHI 49 for 10 yards (P.Chung).

6

1st and 10 at PHI 49

T.Brady pass deep middle to A.Dobson to PHI 26 for 23 yards (B.Fletcher).

7

5

1st and 10 at PHI 26

T.Brady pass short middle to K.Thompkins to PHI 19 for 7 yards (B.Hughes).

8

6

3

2nd and 3 at PHI 19

T.Brady pass short left to K.Thompkins to PHI 13 for 6 yards (B.Fletcher).

9

7

4

1st and 10 at PHI 13

(Shotgun) T.Brady pass short left to S.Vereen for 13 yards, TOUCHDOWN. The Replay Assistant challenged the pass completion ruling, and the play was Upheld.

10

8

 

Thompkins caught only accumulated 23 yards, but all of them came on one drive with Tom Brady, and of Brady’s 8 targets exactly half—HALF!!!—went to Thompkins. In other words, on this drive Thomkins was Brady’s Deion Branch of old, the one he convinced to come back from Seattle for one old times’ sake, the Branch who was Brady’s security blanket.

Just look at the type of catches Thompkins made

1) First catch: On the first 3rd down of the series (3rd and 4), Brady found Thompkins for 6 yards and a first down. He extended the drive.

2) Second catch: Two plays later, on 2nd and 5, Brady completed a pass to Thompkins for 4 yards, resulting in a manageable 3rd and 1.

3) Third catch: Three plays later, on 1st and 10, Brady found Thompkins for 7 yards, creating an ideal down and distance.

4) Fourth catch: On the next play (2nd and 3), Brady found Thompkins one more time for 6 yards and another first down. On the next play the Patriots scored.

With the types of catches Thompkins made he didn’t need lots of yards. He needed only to secure the ball, get enough yards, and earn his QB’s trust. He did that. He kept the drive going and repeatedly put himself where he needed to be when Brady needed him there. If Thompkins is able to replicate that type of performance, he should continue to stay on the field and receive lots targets from Brady—and when people receive lots of targets from Brady fantasy success tends to ensue.

And here’s one more thing—it’s small, but it could end up being attitudinally significant. Just as Brady carries a chip on his shoulder about EVERYTHING (Welker leaving the Patriots, not being “respected” immediately after winning three Super Bowls, “199,” etc.), Thompkins carries a chip because he was undrafted. This is purely speculation, but I think that Patriots players with that “I’m-underrated-and-I’m-going-to-prove-you-wrong” work ethic and mentality tend to do well, as long as they possess enough physical talent: Welker, Woodhead, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, for example. At a minimum, Thompkins’ drive should endure him to Brady and his teammates. At best, his motivation could mold him into the type of WR who makes plays when his QB needs him.

None of this means that Thompkins is ready to become the Deion Branch of 2010—and hopefully Game 3 (and his early exit from Game 4 with the starters?) will fill in more of the picture—but his work in Game 1 and his on-field presence in Game 2 both suggest that the rookie WR is poised to take control of the BOF function. If he does—and with Brady already in mid-season form—Thompkins as a WR2/3 available at his present ADP would represent perhaps the steal of the 2013 fantasy season.

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