COMMENTARY | The New England Patriots have developed a knack for finding value out of undrafted and lesser known players. As the early days of training camp have unfolded, rookie wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins is standing out as a potential steal and feel-good story.
The wide receiver position became extremely unsettled in Foxboro this offseason following the departures of Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch through free agency or release. Free agents like Danny Amendola and Michael Jenkins were brought in, and Aaron Dobson (second round) and Josh Boyce (fourth round) were added through the draft. In total, there are 12 players currently on the roster whose primary position is wide receiver, competing for perhaps five or six jobs.
Thompkins, one of the team's least known receivers, is shining brightly during early camp sessions. Despite a lot of competition, he has received extensive reps in practice and is making the most of them. He has shown so much poise and talent that he is already making a major push for a roster spot.
Following two seasons at community college, he spent the past two years playing for the University of Cincinnati. He had intended to play at the University of Tennessee, but changed his mind after then-head coach Lane Kiffin left for USC.
The 6-foot-inch and 195-pounder totaled 78 catches for 1,077 yards and four touchdowns as a Bearcat. His senior year amounted to just 34 receptions for 541 yards and two scores. The modest numbers were impacted by his team's offense being more focused on their running game.
A bit older at 25, Thompkins went undrafted partly because of his relative lack of collegiate production, a difficult past and so-so combine numbers at the draft. He has fine size, but his 4.54 40-yard time is nothing special. However, not all players must have freakish size or athletic ability to be productive.
According to MassLive.com's Nick Underhill, Thompkins has shown a knack for getting open during camp, impressing cornerback Aqib Talib, who has often drawn the assignment of covering him. The defensive back explained, "I don't know what it is. I don't if its speed, quickness, strength. Either you got it or you don't."
Football is in Thompkins' bloodlines. His cousin, Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown, has become a top young receiver in the league by totaling 151 receptions for 2,062 yards and seven touchdowns since being a sixth-round pick in 2010.
Unfortunately, Thompkins' journey has not been an easy one. The Boston Herald's Jeff Howe reported that he was arrested seven times and expelled from three schools prior to his 19th birthday before dedicating himself to turning his life around.
In a subsequent article, Howe elaborated on Thompkins' arrest record, which includes charges for armed robbery and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, which led to a brief jail sentence. Despite the trouble, the youngster decided to take his life in a different direction and turned to football. His past scared many teams off but he found a home with Cincinnati and became a hard-working good citizen.
His Bearcats coach, Butch Jones, considers the receiver one his favorite players he has worked with, gushing, "Kenbrell Thompkins has earned everything that he's done. He's very humble. He's hungry. We always talk about the football side of things that we don't want individuals that love football. We want individuals that need football, that need football in their lives, and Kenbrell Thompkins is one of those individuals that needs football in his life"
As Thompkins sets himself apart at Patriots camp, hopefully his past won't be held against him by the media and public. In light of the Aaron Hernandez arrest and subsequent questions about what the team knew about his character when they drafted him, the spotlight is shining brightly on their personnel practices.
Thompkins may have made mistakes in his past, but he is clearly not the same person he was as a teenager. The success he is having in trying to earn a roster spot is an example that redemption is possible with the right attitude and hard work.
The Patriots have a growing list of little-known receivers who became major contributors and even stars during the era of star quarterback Tom Brady. Troy Brown, David Givens and Wes Welker are all players who were either taken in the late rounds or undrafted, and went on to have a big impact catching passes in New England.
A testament to the positive impression being made by Thompkins is how the team has already released Donald Jones and Lavelle Hawkins; two veteran receivers expected to provide serious competition for playing time.
Workout warriors often come and go in sports without making much of an impression when the games count. The Patriots have a different experience of rewarding such players with more responsibilities to see if they can hang. Right now, Thompkins is doing just about everything that can be done to cement a spot for himself on the team when the regular season begins.
Players don't have to have name recognition or an impressive draft pedigree to help a team. They have to be hard working and earn the trust of coaches and the quarterback. As training camp progresses, it appears Thompkins is well on his way to earning a spot and positioning himself as potentially the team's next great find.
In addition to the Yahoo! Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports. He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter @historianandrew.
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