There was a stretch of plays during last week's Patriots minicamp that was billed by many -- myself included -- as Tom Brady "going after" Brandon Browner.
It came during a period of 11-on-11 work when Brady targeted Browner with three consecutive pass attempts. For minicamp, it was just about as close as it gets to a heavyweight bout.
The player on the receiving end of each of those attempts went relatively unnoticed: Kenbrell Thompkins.
The second-year wideout hauled in two of Brady's passes, and then later in the same drive came down with a leaping grab in the end zone with Browner draped on him again.
"Very challenging," Thompkins said of going against New England's new 6-foot-4 corner. "Brandon Browner, he’s a tremendous athlete, long arms and everything like that. It’s just great competition to have those guys out there and competing for the ball. It’s a great challenge for us at the wide receiver position, but it’s our job to come down with [the ball]."
For the second consecutive minicamp, Thompkins has stood out in New England's receiving corps.
Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola have shown reliable hands and very good timing with Brady this preseason, but Thompkins' size (6-1) and his availability have given him a chance to shine as the Patriots prepare for training camp.
With Aaron Dobson (foot) out for the entirety of OTAs and minicamp and free-agent acquisition Brandon LaFell participating only on a limited basis as he deals with an unknown ailment, Thompkins got plenty of repetitions with Brady and made the most of them.
Though Thompkins appeared to have some issues bobbling balls and using his body to secure receptions, he was otherwise dependable and appeared to be on the same page as the rest of his offensive teammates.
Thompkins finished last season with 32 catches for 466 yards and four touchdowns, giving Brady a big, athletic target among an almost brand-new set of receivers. Problems with drops and missed time due to injury hurt his overall production, but he's looking carve himself another spot in a position group that seems slightly more crowded than last year's.
If healthy, Edelman, Amendola, Dobson, LaFell, Josh Boyce (who suffered an injury in minicamp on Wednesday) and special teams ace Matthew Slater all figure to be in line for roster spots. Thompson would give the team seven wideouts, which would be one more than they carried on their roster at the end of the season.
Going back to the beginning of last season, the Patriots have appreciated Thompkins' work ethic -- something he knows he'll have to keep up in order to earn himself a place in the offense for 2014.
"Making sure that I’m on top of the things I need to be on top of, that I’m doing everything at a high level, doing everything full speed," Thompkins said. "That’s what I’m coming out here trying to do: make sure that I’m competing, make sure that I’m working hard, make sure I’m doing my job."
Throughout OTAs and minicamp, the Patriots had something in Thompkins that they didn't in anyone else: a healthy receiver with some size. Asked about Dobson missing time before training camp because of an injury, Brady explained just how important it is to be on the field even for something as seemingly ho-hum as minicamp.
"It's always better if you're practicing," Brady said. "I think that's really how you make the improvement. You work really hard to put yourself in a position to make the improvement. Some people are dealing with different situations. If you're healthy you try to come out and get better.
"The guys who aren't really have to really do whatever they can to get back as soon as they can because you can't -- when you get behind training camp it's hard to make up. Things are moving so fast at that point, improvements are so dramatic everyday with installation and correcting all the errors, you just gotta go through it. It very much conditions your body for the rigors of a 16-game season. All those guys are working hard to get back. We'll be a better team when we're at full strength with all the guys healthy and excited and ready to go."
So Thompkins may in a way have a bit of a head start. His experience last season should help as well. But as a second-year guy, more will be expected of him during training camp and into the season if he is to have a long-term role.
Brady gushed about both Thompkins and Boyce -- the two sophomore receivers that have been able to do the most on-the-field offseason work -- but also said it's time for them to make the leap.
"I love working with those guys," Brady said. "We've had a great relationship since they got here over a year ago. They put a lot of time in, a lot of effort to get to the point where they're at now. And now they've gotta take advantage of it.
"You're only a young player for a certain amount of time in the NFL. At that point, people are just waiting for you to produce. Nobody can really make mistakes. Not if you want to be a good offense. The best teams have the most consistent, dependable players and that's what everyone is our here trying to be for our team because that's gonna make our team the toughest to beat."
Whether or not Thompkins is one of those players next season remains to be seen. But by staying on the field and out of the training room, and by using the lessons learned from his first NFL season, he's giving himself a chance to be a contributor once again.
"I’m just out here trying to do my job," he said when asked about making team. "At the end of the day, I have no control over that; you’ll have to ask the coaches about that one. But I’m out here having fun, trying to go out here and compete every day, make sure I’m working hard."
If he continues to do that, there's a chance he could continue to fly under the radar all the way through August and end up with a roster spot just as he did last season.