NFL Nation: Kenbrell Thompkins

TAMPA, Fla. -- If you're looking for an under-the-radar player with a chance to make Tampa Bay's roster, you might want to consider wide receiver Tommy Streeter. But look quickly because Streeter might not be an unknown for much longer.

Streeter already is catching the eyes of his teammates and coaches.

"We kind of have a running joke, 'Man, that dude is catching the ball right and left, over and over,'" quarterback Josh McCown said after Thursday's practice. "It's like one of the better camps I've been around for a receiver. He's just got so many dang catches. And he's just doing his job. He's just a humble, hard-working guy that comes out here every day and gets after it. He catches the ball when it's thrown to him and that's all you can ask for as a player."

[+] EnlargeTampa Bay's Tommy Streeter
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsTampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown said Tommy Streeter's performance this summer is "one of the better camps I've been around for a receiver."
Streeter's talent flashed again in Thursday's practice when he made a nice catch when matched up against veteran safety Major Wright.

"He's another guy with good size, good height, good speed and he's been catching the football," coach Lovie Smith said. "You talk to him and he doesn't want a whole lot of complements, he's just 'Hey, I'm just trying to do my job, trying to get better very day,' saying all the right things, just making plays. That's all you have to do as a player. You don't have to worry about, am I going to make the roster, am I going to get enough plays. If you get one play, you do something, you'll continue to get more. We've noticed him. When we initially came to camp he's wasn't one of the guys we were talking a lot about. But he's been pretty steady every day."

Streeter seems to be putting himself in line for a roster spot in a receiving corps in which the only sure things are starters Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans.

A sixth-round draft pick by Baltimore in 2012, Streeter has been unable to make an impact in the NFL so far. But he's not a stranger to the big stage. Streeter played at the University of Miami.

"No, I'm not afraid," Streeter said. "I've been doing this since age 7. I don't see any difference at any level. It all comes down to, at this level, how much goes into the preparation before the dance."

Streeter has been preparing for the dance by paying close attention to Jackson. That's a wise choice because Streeter is the same size (6-foot-5) as Jackson.

"I talk to him every day," Streeter said. "I ask him different questions on how do you run this route based on different leverages and techniques. Basically, what little tricks and crafty moves he has that he uses to get open. I try to incorporate that in my game as well."

Streeter said he already has learned a lot from Jackson.

"His ability to drop his weight and get in and out of his cuts," Streeter said. "He comes downhill and he's aggressive to the ball. That's something I always continuously try to improve on. At the University of Miami, I was always the deep ball guy. When you come here in this offense there's a lot of route running involved. That's something I continuously work on and something I always try to get better at."

Streeter may not have the NFL pedigree, but he came out of one of the nation's top high school programs. That's Miami Northwestern.

"They used to call us the University of Northwestern," Streeter said.

Streeter's high school team also featured two other Buccaneers, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Anthony Gaitor. Streeter wore the same jersey (No. 5) as previously worn by Kenbrell Thompkins, who now is with the New England Patriots, and later worn by Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

"My coach, when he gave it to me, he was like 'Son, I'm going to give you No. 5. You might have to do a little history to understand the importance of this number and the guys who wore it before you and what they did,'" Streeter said. "I was kind of nervous, like 'Does the No. 5 jersey glow or something? Is everybody watching me?' But nonetheless, I thrived in that environment."

If Streeter can continue doing what he has been doing in practice, he might be able to thrive with the Buccaneers.

Rapid Reaction: New England Patriots

January, 11, 2014
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sharing thoughts on the New England Patriots' 43-22 divisional-round playoff victory Saturday over the Indianapolis Colts:

What it means: The Patriots advance to the AFC Championship Game for the eighth time in Bill Belichick's 14 years as head coach, which continues a remarkable run of success for Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. Many of the faces around them have changed over the years, but Belichick and Brady have been the constants, and one could make a case this has been their most impressive season as a tandem. The Patriots have been hit as hard by injuries as any team in the NFL, but they've willed their way to put themselves in position to win their first Super Bowl championship since the 2004 season.

Running game sparks attack again: For the third consecutive game, the Patriots' ground attack was the difference-maker, led by hard-charging LeGarrette Blount (franchise-record four rushing touchdowns). The Patriots split snaps at running back evenly among Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, and sliced up the Colts with strong work up front by the offensive line -- left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Logan Mankins, center Ryan Wendell, right guard Dan Connolly and right tackle Marcus Cannon -- as well as tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan and fullback James Develin. When the Patriots run it like this, it brings back memories of the 2004 Super Bowl championship team for which bruiser Corey Dillon was the lead back.

Injuries to monitor: Punter Ryan Allen left the game in the second quarter with a shoulder injury and did not return. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski handled the punting duties, and Brady handled the holder responsibilities as part of the field-goal operation. If Allen is unavailable in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots would almost certainly bring in another punter. Former Patriot Zoltan Mesko isn't an option, as he punted for the Bengals in the playoffs and isn't eligible to join another team. ... Elsewhere, rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins left the game in the fourth quarter with a head injury (presumably a concussion) and did not return. Veteran Austin Collie was his replacement.

Stock watch: Jamie Collins -- up. The Patriots' top pick in the 2013 draft (52nd overall) was thrust into an expanded role, in part because linebacker Brandon Spikes was placed on season-ending injured reserve earlier in the week. Collins had played just 25 percent of the defensive snaps during the regular season, but he didn't come off the field and made his presence felt as a tackler, pass-rusher and in coverage with an interception. He was all over the field in what was a coming out party for the ultra-athletic defender from Southern Mississippi.

What's next: The Patriots will play in the AFC Championship Game against the winner of Sunday's game between the visiting San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos (4:40 p.m. ET). If Denver beats San Diego, the AFC Championship Game will be played in Denver. If San Diego beats Denver, the AFC Championship Game will be played in New England. Regardless of location, the game will be played at 3 p.m. ET next Sunday.

WR Dobson remains out of practice

January, 8, 2014
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots receiver Aaron Dobson remains out of practice with a foot injury, making it unlikely he will be available for Saturday's divisional-round playoff against the Indianapolis Colts.

Dobson
Dobson, who hobbled off in the second quarter of the Patriots' season finale against the Bills on Dec. 29, hasn't practiced since.

At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, he is the team's tallest receiver and also arguably the club's best deep threat. A second-round draft choice out of Marshall, Dobson totaled 37 catches for 519 yards and four touchdowns during the regular season, playing 46.4 percent of the offensive snaps.

Julian Edelman (5-foot-10, 198 pounds) has been the Patriots' top receiver for most of the year and the Patriots' most ideal pairing in the two-receiver set has been when he teams up with Dobson, with Danny Amendola (5-11, 195) serving as the No. 3 target.

Without Dobson, the Patriots have at times turned more to Amendola, although he has a similar skill set to Edelman's. An Edelman-Amendola pairing also leaves the Patriots a bit smaller on the outside.

Rookie Kenbrell Thompkins (6-1, 195) and five-year veteran Austin Collie (6-0, 204) are next on the depth chart.

Elsewhere on the Patriots' injury front, starting left guard Logan Mankins (ankle) and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (knee) were present at practice for the second straight day.

Sharing Patriots halftime thoughts

December, 29, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sharing thoughts at halftime of the New England Patriots' regular-season finale against the Bills (New England leads 16-3):

Mankins' toughness is evident: When starting left guard Logan Mankins was helped off the field in the second quarter, it was natural to assume it was serious. Mankins is one of the toughest Patriots players, once playing on a torn ACL. But after going to the locker room, Mankins soon returned to action. It very well might be serious, but they don't come much tougher than Mankins.

Dobson foot injury could lead to Collie call: With rookie receiver Aaron Dobson limping off the field in the first quarter (and not returning), it moved Kenbrell Thompkins up the depth chart into some two-receiver packages. Also, Danny Amendola played in some two-receiver packages along with Julian Edelman after opening the game exclusively as the No. 3. One thought: If Dobson's injury is serious enough to keep him out, it could lead to a quick call back for Austin Collie.

Edelman's milestone: Edelman has arguably been the Patriots' most consistent offensive player this season, and he hit both the 100-catch and 1,000-yard receiving marks today. The spark he is providing the offense is Wes Welker-like.

Wet ball a factor: With the game being played under heavy rain, ballhandling has been shaky on both sides. New England's Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount had fumbles, both of which were recovered by the Patriots. Amendola dropped a pass. It looked like one long throw might have slipped out of Tom Brady's hand.

Style of play reminds of 2004 season: When the Patriots run the ball like they have today, and also last Sunday against Baltimore, it brings back memories of the 2004 season when Corey Dillon was rumbling through opposing defenses. Dillon was a big back, and while Blount is not in that class, his size stands out.

Credit to the defense: The Patriots are piecing things together on defense, but credit to the unit for coming up with the stops in the critical situations (e.g. fourth-and-1). It doesn't always look pretty, and the Bills have helped in some areas with sloppy play, but the New England defense has done its part so far today.

Bills get the ball: The Bills won the opening toss and elected to defer, so they will get the ball at the start of the second half.

Solder, Vereen, Thompkins active

December, 29, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Starting New England Patriots left tackle Nate Solder and running back Shane Vereen are both active for today's game against the Buffalo Bills, which is the most notable takeaway from the team's list of inactive players.

Solder missed last Sunday's win against the Ravens with a concussion, and Vereen was limited to seven snaps with a groin injury in the game.

Also, receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) is active after missing the past three games.

The full list of inactives:

DE Jake Bequette
OL Chris Barker
DT Isaac Sopoaga
CB Alfonzo Dennard
S Devin McCourty
LB Steve Beauharnais
WR Josh Boyce

ANALYSIS: Sopoaga is a healthy scratch for the second straight week. He has slipped to fourth on the defensive tackle depth chart behind Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, and Joe Vellano, and the Patriots need the depth in other areas ... Dennard was a game-time decision last week (shoulder/knee) and he gets the rest today; hence the promotion of practice squad cornerback Justin Green on Saturday.

Bills inactives:

QB EJ Manuel (knee)
WR Stevie Johnson (personal)
WR Cordell Roberson
RB Ronnie Wingo
DB Brandon Smith
G Mark Asper
G Antoine McClain
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty (concussion) and wide receiver Josh Boyce (ankle) were the two players absent from Thursday's practice, while defensive end Rob Ninkovich was the only addition to the injury report, with an ankle issue that limited him on Thursday.

It is not known when the injury to Ninkovich occurred or how much it has limited him. He was seen in the locker room Thursday without any noticeable limp or hitch in his step.

If McCourty and Boyce are unable to practice on Friday, it would cast doubt on their availability for Sunday's regular-season finale against the Bills.

A total of 12 players were limited in practice Thursday, a list that included left tackle Nate Solder (concussion) and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (hip), both of whom missed the Week 16 game in Baltimore.


McCourty, Boyce absent from practice

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Starting safety Devin McCourty and rookie wide receiver Josh Boyce (ankle) were the two New England Patriots not spotted at the team's walkthrough on Tuesday morning.

Joyce
Boyce
McCourty
McCourty left Sunday's game after tackling Ravens tight end Ed Dickson in the third quarter and did not return. The team officially announced it as a head injury, although it is unclear if McCourty suffered a concussion. Rookie safety Duron Harmon filled in for McCourty.

Boyce, meanwhile, suffered a Week 15 ankle injury against the Dolphins that kept him off the practice field all of last week and out of Sunday's game. The timetable for his return is unclear.

Running back Shane Vereen, who left Sunday's game with a groin injury, was on the field and taking part in team stretching. Safety Steve Gregory, who left the game Sunday with an undisclosed injury but did return, was present for the walkthrough but spent the media-access portion of it on the sidelines.

Left tackle Nate Solder (concussion) and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) were also present for the indoor walkthrough.

One additional note: Running back LeGarrette Blount was still wearing his AFC East Champions hat. He obviously likes the fit.

Stevan Ridley, Alfonzo Dennard active

December, 8, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- As expected, running back Stevan Ridley is active for the Patriots and will dress for today's game against the Cleveland Browns. What remains to be seen is just how much he will play after being deactivated last week following three straight games with a fumble.

The team announced its final five inactives -- wide receiver Aaron Dobson and offensive tackle Marcus Cannon had previously been ruled out -- which includes running back Brandon Bolden, who was listed with a non-injury issue but probable to play, and rookie wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (hip), who was limited this week in practice.

Starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who has missed two of three games with a knee injury and was listed as questionable, will play. Veteran wide receiver Austin Collie, re-signed this week, is active and will play. With Dobson and Thompkins sitting, Collie could be in line for reps as the team's third or fourth receiver.

Below is a full list of Patriots inactives:

LB Steve Beauharnais
DE Jake Bequette
RB Brandon Bolden
OT Marcus Cannon
WR Aaron Dobson
TE Michael Hoomanawanui
WR Kenbrell Thompkins

Below is a list of Browns inactives:

WR Josh Cooper
OL Reid Fragel
OL Garrett Gilkey
TE Keavon Milton
QB Alex Tanney
OL Martin Wallace
QB Brandon Weeden

Double Coverage: Patriots at Texans

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
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Andre Johnson and Chandler JonesUSA Today SportsAndre Johnson, left, and the Texans hope to surprise Chandler Jones and the Patriots.
HOUSTON -- The last time the Houston Texans faced the New England Patriots during the regular season, Houston was 11-1 and the hottest team in the league. To celebrate their youthful camaraderie, they ordered letterman jackets, the kind high school teams wear, and the jackets happened to come in right before the Patriots game.

That game marked a turning point for the Texans.

The timing of the jackets had nothing to do with the opponent; former Texans Connor Barwin and Shaun Cody were simply trying to create a tradition. That they lost so badly just after unveiling them turned the jackets into a punch line.

The Patriots won 42-14, and the Texans finished their season having lost three of their last four games. That meant losing the home-field advantage that seemed theirs before that game and led to another meeting with the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. New England won again, 41-28.

It was a lesson for the Texans in what it takes to be a great team.

Heading into this season, many thought the Texans were positioned to be one of the top teams in the NFL. The Patriots seemed poised for a down year, by their standards, but here we are in Week 13 and they sit in their usual spot atop the AFC East.

ESPN.com Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss the matchup.

Ganguli: Mike, how has the loss of so many of his top targets from last season impacted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady?

Reiss: We saw it impact Brady more significantly through the first eight games. But things have started to click the past two games, and it’s no coincidence that it coincides with tight end Rob Gronkowski's reaching a new level of comfort since his return Oct. 20, and running back Shane Vereen's coming off the injured reserve list. With those two joining receivers Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins, the pass-catching corps has been as stocked as we’ve seen all season.

I know it’s been a down year for the Texans, but is J.J. Watt still creating havoc? Is that defense still tough?

Ganguli: Watt is still creating havoc. He has 9.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and four passes defensed. He is someone opposing offenses must track on every play. The Texans' defense has played well, but it has holes. On Sunday, the Jaguars had success with the matchup of receiver Cecil Shorts against cornerback Brandon Harris in the slot. Injuries to middle linebacker Brian Cushing and strong safety Danieal Manning have been particularly damaging. The Texans have statistically been much better with Cushing than without him since he was drafted. Their attempt to add some mental toughness with Ed Reed didn’t work as they had hoped, so two young players are starting at safety -- Shiloh Keo at free safety and D.J. Swearinger at strong safety. Swearinger is the Texans’ rookie second-round pick. He will be really good, but right now he’s learning a lot about playing at this level. They haven’t allowed a lot of yards, but have allowed too many points and not created enough turnovers.

Speaking of turnovers, as I watched Sunday night’s Patriots game against the Broncos, it seemed every time I looked up the Patriots had either committed or forced a turnover. What did you make of that? Was it an aberration?

Reiss: The forced turnovers were the norm, as the Patriots recently ended a streak of 36 games with at least one forced turnover (Nov. 18 vs. Carolina). The Patriots' committing turnovers was a little more out of character, although one of the pressing issues facing the club is what to do with lead running back Stevan Ridley (3 lost fumbles in the past three games). The Patriots are traditionally strong in turnover differential, and this season is no different, as they are plus-8 with 23 takeaways and 15 giveaways.

I know this probably comes out of left field, but how is the playing surface at Reliant Stadium? Patriots followers remember the last visit, in 2009, when Wes Welker tore his ACL. I saw a recent game, and it looks like there are patches of grass on the field with noticeable seams in certain parts.

Ganguli: Not out of left field at all. If the game you saw was the Texans’ Nov. 3 Sunday night game against the Indianapolis Colts, this was a major topic of conversation that night. The field looked pretty bad, mostly because there was a college game played on the same grass that week. They replaced the center of the field, but the outer grass was a mess. The University of Houston has played five games at Reliant Stadium this season while its stadium is being renovated. It has played most of them on field turf. The Cougars will play again on Friday morning, and none of the grass will be replaced between that game and the Texans-Patriots game Sunday. I believe the thinking is that will give it enough time to recover. Something to watch, though.

Let’s talk more about defense to wrap up here. Will Aqib Talib be assigned to Andre Johnson on Sunday? How do you think he’ll fare?

Reiss: That would make a lot of sense, as Talib has often been assigned the opponent’s top receiver. After a rocky game Nov. 18 against Carolina and Steve Smith, he was very good this past Sunday night against Demaryius Thomas in the 34-31 win against the Broncos. Talib has been key for the pass defense. Meanwhile, the loss of key players to season-ending injuries (defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, and linebacker Jerod Mayo) has hurt the run defense at times, such as in the Broncos game. But they played a 4-2-5 nickel for most of the game, and I don’t think that will be as much of a factor against the Texans. The Patriots will probably be in their base defense more often, and they played well against the Panthers’ tough running attack in that package.

One thing I think Patriots followers would be interested to hear is what has happened to the Texans? How could a team go so quickly from the AFC divisional round of the playoffs and talking about “letterman” jackets to vying for the No. 1 pick in the draft?

Ganguli: Even with some of the missteps in the offseason, it would have been difficult to foresee this. There are a lot of issues, but I'll focus on the quarterback situation. The biggest mystery is what happened to quarterback Matt Schaub. He was never on the level of Brady, but he gave the Texans what they needed. He was consistent and productive. He actually played really well in leading comebacks against the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans this season. That seems so long ago. The Texans' turnover margin has been among the worst in the league all season, and Schaub was part of that. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw pick-sixes in four consecutive games. He threw one on the first pass of the game against the San Francisco 49ers, and that game marked the only time this season Schaub played poorly from start to finish. There were myriad other problems, but Schaub lost his starting spot when he suffered a foot and ankle injury in Week 6. First-year quarterback Case Keenum took over, but his play hasn't meant victories. In his first three starts, he played well in the first half and not so well in the second half. His most recent game, against Jacksonville, was his worst of the season. Keenum threw for 169 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.

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Dobson's absence adds injury context

November, 27, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots rookie receiver Aaron Dobson was not present for the start of today's practice, which adds context to a personnel switch the team made in the second half of Sunday's 34-31 overtime win against the Broncos.

Dobson
Dobson, it appears, was dealing with some form of injury. That would explain why he played only two of his 37 snaps in the second half. He was replaced by fellow rookie Kenbrell Thompkins, who played 41 of his 44 snaps in the second half.

On Tuesday, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was asked about the switch from Thompkins to Dobson and referenced the idea of riding the hot hand as Thompkins had some immediate production in the third quarter to spark the stagnant offense.

It appears there was also some injury consideration in play with Dobson, which will become clearer when the team releases its first injury report later Wednesday. The injury status of linebacker Dont'a Hightower will also be something to note, as he didn't play the final 45 minutes of Sunday's game.

Elsewhere at practice, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (knee) and offensive lineman Marcus Cannon (ankle) were the other players not spotted. There was also a new player on the field who appeared to be an offensive lineman.

The Patriots practiced inside the Dana-Farber Fieldhouse because of rain and high winds in the region.

Josh McDaniels on filling No. 4 WR void

November, 11, 2013
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When the New England Patriots released veteran Austin Collie last Tuesday after he injured his knee, it created a void at the No. 4 receiver spot.

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was asked Monday about the team's plans to fill it, and his answer provided insight as to how the coaching staff currently views the receiver depth chart.

McDaniels
McDaniels
First, McDaniels said that the idea of settling on a top three (Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola) has been part of the mindset, with the idea of "being able to try to have some consistency in terms of the things we are doing with those guys."

So that puts rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce as the top candidates to vie for Collie's playing time in the No. 4 spot, which averaged 22 snaps per game over the past three weeks. Both were healthy scratches last week against the Steelers.

"KT and Josh Boyce will also factor into the competition in terms of who is active and how we go about forming the game plan," McDaniels said. "You never like to have a player get hurt, and certainly Austin was helping us and doing what we asked of him, but any time you have a situation like this that comes up during the course of the season, it provides a little spark of competition, and [I] think that is healthy for any group on the team. We will look forward to the receivers going out there and having a good week of practice and then trying to let it unfold from there."

Thompkins has 23 receptions for 334 yards and four touchdowns in eight games played. Boyce has been inactive for each of the past four games, and has one catch for 24 yards this season.

Progress report: Rookies chip in

November, 7, 2013
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The New England Patriots have received significant contributions from their rookie class this season. In Bill Belichick's 14 years as head coach, this season ranks near the top of the list, if not at the top, in this area.

Following up Field Yates' progress report on second-year players from this morning, here is a rookie breakdown (alphabetical order):

Allen
Punter Ryan Allen: The undrafted free agent ranks 10th in the NFL with a 46.4 average and 16th in net punting (39.9) as he's proven to be up to the task of replacing veteran Zoltan Mesko. He's also the holder on field goals, and Stephen Gostkowski is 22 of 23 this season. Allen's eight touchbacks are tied for the NFL high, which is an area for improvement.

Guard Chris Barker: Claimed on waivers from the Dolphins at the final roster cutdown, the undrafted free agent from Nevada dressed for the first three games of the season as veteran backup Will Svitek was working his way back from a knee injury, but hasn't played on offense. This looks like a red-shirt year for him as the Patriots have avoided the risk of another team claiming him on waivers (Dolphins?) should they try to move him to the practice squad.

Linebacker Steve Beauharnais: The seventh-round draft choice from Rutgers has dressed for three games, but hasn't played on defense. This appears to be more of a red-shirt year for him.

Receiver Josh Boyce: The fourth-round draft choice from Texas Christian played in the first five games (1 catch, 24 yards) but has been inactive for the past four as veteran Austin Collie was viewed as a more consistent option. Boyce is one of the fastest receivers on the team, but appears to need a little more time to put it all together.

Defensive end Michael Buchanan: The seventh-round pick from Illinois opened the season as the primary right defensive end in sub packages, but a few struggles with rush-lane integrity (Oct. 6 vs. Bengals and Oct. 20 vs. Jets) led to the signing of veteran Andre Carter, who has since taken over that role. Buchanan contributes on special teams and is now No. 4 on the overall defensive end depth chart, with obvious upside.

Linebacker Jamie Collins: The second-round pick from Southern Mississippi has been a core special teams player and was integrated a bit more defensively after linebacker Jerod Mayo was lost to a season-ending injury Oct. 13. But after flashing a bit Oct. 20 vs. the Jets, he was pushed around in the first half against the Dolphins on Oct. 27 and has played sparingly on defense since. He has all the tools, but appears to need a bit more time.

Dobson
Receiver Aaron Dobson: The second-round pick from Marshall has come on strong in recent weeks, elevating to the top spot on the depth chart as the X outside target. He has 31 receptions for 454 yards with four touchdowns, and at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds gives the Patriots a combination of size and speed that they haven't had at the position since Randy Moss.

Safety Duron Harmon: Considered a reach as a third-round pick, the Rutgers product has been a top backup behind starters Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory, playing in some sub packages. He also filled in on special teams when core player Tavon Wilson was out with a hamstring injury. Teammates have talked about his smarts and his professional approach.

Defensive tackle Chris Jones: Claimed on waivers from the Buccaneers on Sept. 11, he earns our vote for Patriots "rookie of the first half" with five sacks in six games played. At 6-foot-1 and 309 pounds, his quickness has been an asset as an interior rusher, and he's been competitive from a strength/physical standpoint on run plays. Waived by the Texans, who drafted him in the sixth round, he briefly landed in Tampa before the Buccaneers let him go and the Patriots pounced. He has proven to be a steal.

Ryan
Cornerback Logan Ryan: The third-round pick from Rutgers has made some big plays, such as an interception return for a touchdown against the Jets on Oct. 20, as he's been thrust into a top reserve role in recent weeks with Aqib Talib out. At 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, he has mostly been competitive in coverage and shown a willingness to play the run.

Receiver Kenbrell Thompkins: The undrafted free agent from Cincinnati has slid down the depth chart the past two weeks after serving mostly as the primary X option on the outside (23 catches, 334 yards, 4 TDs) through the first seven games. He made the big game-winning catch against the Saints on Oct. 13, but has since been passed on the depth chart by Dobson.

Defensive tackle Joe Vellano: The undrafted free agent from Maryland is one of the surprises of the season. After opening the season as the No. 3 option behind Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, he has been thrust into a starting role as both veterans have been lost to season-ending injuries. At 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds, he might be viewed as undersized by some, but he wins with technique and scrappiness.

Talib, Thompkins among inactives

November, 3, 2013
11/03/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Cornerback Aqib Talib will miss his third straight game for the Patriots with a hip injury and rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins is a healthy scratch for the first time this season.

Talib
Talib
Those were the biggest takeaways from the Patriots' list of inactive players today:

CB Aqib Talib
WR Kenbrell Thompkins
DE Jake Bequette
WR Josh Boyce
RB Leon Washington
LB Steve Beauharnais
G Chris Barker

ANALYSIS: Thompkins' snaps declined last week (14) as he had slid down the depth chart at receiver behind Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Austin Collie. In the end, the Patriots decided to go with a fullback/third tight end over a fifth receiver. ... With Talib inactive for the third straight game, it gives him two more weeks to heal as the Patriots are on the bye next week. ... Ditto for Washington, who appears to be getting closer to returning from an ankle injury. ... Rookie guard Josh Kline, who was promoted from the practice squad Saturday, gets the nod over fellow rookie Chris Barker on the 46-man game-day roster. The Patriots obviously like Barker's potential, but view Kline as more game-ready right now.

Steelers inactives:

QB Landry Jones
WR Markus Wheaton
CB Curtis Brown
TE Richard Gordon
LB Kion Wilson
G David DeCastro
DT Hebron Fangupo

Last-second drive worthy of a replay

October, 13, 2013
10/13/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots players involved in a dramatic eight-play, game-winning touchdown drive brought it back to life in a jubilant postgame locker room.

The situation had been dire -- 1:13 remaining, trailing 27-23, the ball on their 30-yard line, no timeouts -- which made reliving the improbable finish that much sweeter.

[+] EnlargeKenbrell Thompkins
Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports"It was just a deep ball, zone coverage, the DB [Jabari Greer] ended up letting me get behind him and I just went up there and made a play," Kenbrell Thompkins said of his winning TD catch.
“Before we went out, everyone was just focused, trying to prepare for the situation. We work on that situation on Thursdays a bunch, Coach [Bill Belichick] makes it really hard on us, so we’re just focused at that point,” receiver Julian Edelman said. “We were trying to get back from what we had dug ourselves into it. We just wanted to go out there and start it off right.”

They did so with Edelman’s 23-yard catch over the middle on a laser from quarterback Tom Brady, the team employing a four-receiver package (Edelman, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Austin Collie) to get more speed on the field.

“It was Tampa 2 [defense], a middle read, and Tommy put it on the line and I went up and got it,” Edelman said of the drive-starting play, in which he had lined up in the right slot and got behind linebacker David Hawthorne and found the opening in front of safety Rafael Bush. “You can’t think of anything else at that point. You just have to give the ball to the ref and get back to the next play.”

Everyone was on the same page.

"I’m thinking, 'We have to get back to the ball and make another play. There is still a lot of field to cover, probably less than a minute now,'" Dobson said.

Indeed, the Patriots didn’t snap the ball again until there were 53 seconds remaining, Brady connecting on a 15-yard pass over the middle to Collie, who had bumped up the depth chart after Danny Amendola had previously left the game with a head injury. Collie had played just one snap prior to the final drive.

“It was an in-route, I saw the middle of the field vacant, and kind of knew I was a viable option,” Collie said of the play in which he lined up in the left slot. “The ball came my way, I caught it, got down as quick as I could, then gave the ball to the ref.”

Collie’s quick work was imperative as the Patriots were back at the line of scrimmage for their next play with 39 seconds remaining.

Considering Sunday was Collie’s 11th day as a Patriot, his ability to come through in that critical situation, without the benefit of a huddle, was not overlooked by Belichick. The coach praised Collie, telling reporters he has spent more than two hours daily working overtime with position coach Chad O’Shea. It showed on the final march.

"That whole drive was me making sure I’m dialed in, making sure I was where I needed to be, and reminding myself 'expect the ball to be coming to you on this play,'" Collie said.

The ball now at the Saints 32, Brady then connected with Dobson on a 6-yard pass to the right side.

“Just an off-the-ball pass,” Dobson explained. “The DB [Keenan Lewis] on me was way off and [Brady] kind of looked at me and we were on the same page. I knew I had to get out of bounds and [Lewis] helped me get out.”

That stopped the clock with 35 seconds remaining, setting up back-to-back incompletions over the deep middle to Edelman from the Saints 26.

“I wish I could have had the second one back, I got banged at the end. You have to make that catch,” said Edelman, who was banged up on the play and left the game as tight end Michael Hoomanawanui came on in his place.

Then, once again, Collie rose up in the critical situation: fourth-and-4, with 24 seconds remaining.

“Got an out-route and you just make sure you get separation and make sure you catch the ball when it comes to you,” he said of the 9-yard catch in which he shook safety Malcolm Jenkins with authority. “It was a big down.”

Dobson That's a very memorable moment for me, probably one of the best football games I've played in.

-- Patriots WR Aaron Dobson
Because Collie couldn’t get out of bounds, players hustled back to the line for a spike to stop the clock, setting up the final touchdown, Brady firing a 17-yard strike to Thompkins in the back left-hand corner of the end zone. Thompkins rose up to make the catch, keeping his feet in bounds with five seconds remaining.

“We had everybody going in the end zone and he kind of snuck into the corner and I put it up there for him,” Brady said. “He came down and made a great catch.”

“It was just a deep ball, zone coverage, the DB [Jabari Greer] ended up letting me get behind him and I just went up there and made a play,” said Thompkins, who pumped his right fist in the air repeatedly in celebration.

“Just awesome. Perfect textbook catch, the timing, getting his feet in,” Hoomanawanui added. “He just made an unreal play but it’s nothing new to us. We see that kind of stuff every day from him. It was just awesome to see it in that situation at the end of the game, and let the fans see it.”

Parts of Gillette Stadium had actually emptied out by that point, those who left missing one of the most dramatic finishes in recent Patriots memory.

Those who stayed had seen this type of Brady magic before. The difference, of course, was that the supporting cast was almost entirely new.

“That’s a very memorable moment for me, probably one of the best football games I’ve played in,” said Dobson, the second-round pick from Marshall. “Going through that as a rookie, a last drive type of thing, and we all had a catch. I just felt we all contributed.”
Kenbrell ThompkinsKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesKenbrell Thompkins' 18-yard diving touchdown catch put the Patriots up 27-13.

ATLANTA -- Midway through the fourth quarter, we were ready to write it in all capital letters for the New England Patriots: BEST WIN OF THE SEASON.

Then came a near collapse, so let’s just call it the best win of the season.

They did it in the Georgia Dome, one of the toughest places for visitors to emerge victorious. They did it against an Atlanta Falcons team that since 2008 has only lost back-to-back games three times. And they did it after taking control of the game with a commanding 17-point lead with 6:18 remaining. But then they almost gave it away after about half of the sellout crowd had headed to the exits.

Talk about creating your own adversity, then overcoming it. That’s what Sunday night’s 30-23 victory represented for the Patriots: a 60-minute roller coaster of sudden swings with a happy ending.

For those curious how players reacted, it was mostly a happy Patriots' locker room afterward, even though it seemed like quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t in the smiling mood. Maybe he was just exhausted. Or maybe he was peeved that a fumbled snap on fourth down with 1:54 remaining, when the Patriots needed to advance just a few inches to seal the win, nearly cost the team a victory.

Instead, it took cornerback Aqib Talib's fourth-down pass breakup, in the end zone, to finally extinguish the threat.

“We slugged it out,” Brady said early Monday morning. “We came to Atlanta, which is a tough place to play. They have a very good team. It’s nice to win and be 4-0.”

“I’m really proud of the way our team played today,” coach Bill Belichick said. “They made a good example of what it takes to win in the league, and that’s 60 minutes of good football. We have to do a better job of finishing out the game. Obviously we could have played a little better in the end, but it’s good to be 4-0 and get out of here with a win.”

As one player was quick to remind a reporter, few pundits predicted the Patriots would be in this position, which was a reminder that media buzz does resonate inside the locker room walls at times -- stuff like the Patriots defense needing to prove it can shut down a top-level quarterback, or the inconsistent offense being able to hold up its end of the bargain.

[+] EnlargeVince Wilfork
AP Photo/David GoldmanHaving Vince Wilfork carted off with an injury puts a damper on a 4-0 start.
There will be fewer questions about the defense after this one, and anyone who might have doubted Talib’s value to the unit has to be having second thoughts. He’s been a big-time difference maker, the first real shutdown man corner the team has had since Ty Law (1995-2004), and he showed it again Sunday night.

But that doesn’t mean there are not concerns. Starting defensive tackle Vince Wilfork left the Georgia Dome with a protective boot on his right foot after being carted to the locker room in the first quarter. Belichick was speaking with Wilfork’s wife, Bianca, outside the team’s locker room after the game -- a conversation that both obviously hoped they wouldn’t be having.

The Boston Globe reports Wilfork has a torn right Achilles tendon and likely is done for the season.
Meanwhile, promoted cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who started in the base defense over Kyle Arrington for the first time this season, hobbled off late and didn’t finish. And rookie receiver Aaron Dobson left in the third quarter with a neck injury and never returned.

So the Patriots left Atlanta a battered team. But it’s safe to say they aren’t as bruised and beaten as the Falcons, who were steamrolled by a power running game that had shades of 2004, when Corey Dillon was tearing up opposing defenses. The Patriots, who owned a decisive size advantage over the Falcons, wanted to play old-fashioned big-boy football.

Wide-smiling 250-pound running back LeGarrette Blount, who romped for a 47-yard touchdown run at the start of the fourth quarter, relayed to the media that that was the crux of Belichick’s message all week -- physical play.

That’s why Brady had only nine pass attempts in the first half, the Patriots preferring to keep it on the ground (they only had three possessions) before their passing game erupted in the second half. Receivers Julian Edelman (7 catches, 118 yards) and Kenbrell Thompkins (6 catches, 127 yards and a TD) were immense.

“I’m just playing football and trusting the older guys to put me in the right spot for the plays that are being called,” said the unassuming Thompkins, whose diving 18-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter was similar to a play he failed to make in Week 2 against the New York Jets.

The play, in a sense, epitomizes the growth that players such as Thompkins and the Patriots have shown in a short time. And if the past is any indication, they should only get better.

When there was 6:31 remaining, and it was 30-13, it didn’t seem like a stretch to say the Patriots were putting together the type of performance that brought back memories of their Super Bowl championship past.

It had all the makings of the BEST WIN OF THE SEASON.

The ending, and near collapse, almost changed everything.

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