It’s fitting that a season marred by murder charges against one of the Patriots’ top tight ends could be salvaged in part by an undrafted wideout who was arrested seven times before his 19th birthday.
Kenbrell Thompkins was signed before Aaron Hernandez’s arrest and possibly wouldn’t have been signed after it. The rookie has emerged as one of the best receivers on the roster. He started Thursday night’s preseason game against the Lions, catching eight passes for 116 yards.
The cousin of Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, Thompkins’ history was recently detailed by the Boston Herald. At age seven, he shot himself in the arm. In middle school, he was selling drugs. An arrest for armed robbery prompted one of multiple expulsions from high school. Later, Thompkins was busted for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and he served 28 days in jail.
A convoluted path through college football ended in Cincinnati, where Brown helped persuade coach Butch Jones (who coached Brown at Central Michigan) to give Thompkins a chance. Though Thompkins caught only 34 passes for 541 yards and two touchdowns in his final season with the Bearcats, he has quickly shot up the depth chart in New England, starting the team’s two most recent preseason games.
With second-rounder Aaron Dobson and free-agent arrival Danny Amendola destined to get plenty of playing time, Thompkins could be nailing down one of the outside spots when Amendola lines up, as he inevitably will, in the slot.
Thompkins’ history fits the profile of the kind of player that the post-Hernandez Patriots may try to avoid. But the rookie’s potential performance, if coupled with good behavior, could make it harder for teams like the Patriots to know when to give a guy with a troubled past a chance to turn his life around, and when to avoid the player at all costs.
By all appearances, Thompkins has changed his life. Given their experience with Hernandez, the Patriots may be in much better position to draw a reliable line between guys who truly have separated from past troubles, and those like Hernandez who merely say all the right things.