FOXBOROUGH With wide receivers Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, and Brandon LaFell all looking like locks for the roster, there is a battle brewing at the bottom of the New England Patriots' depth chart at wide receiver.
On Thursday, second-year wide-out Kenbrell Thompkins began making a strong case for himself.
The Cincinnati product caught almost everything thrown his way, and made some of the most impressive grabs of the day. Four of his catches stood out: two catches in traffic near the left sideline, a leaping catch over cornerback Brandon Browner on an end zone fade, and a back-shoulder fade while falling to the ground near the right sideline.
The end zone grab was particularly impressive. The 6-foot-4 Browner had inside leverage on Thompkins, who leaped over the defensive back and made the overhead grab.
"Very challenging," Thompkins said of the grab on Wednesday after practice. "Brandon Browner, he's a tremendous athlete, long arms and everything like that. You know, 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]."
A pass like that, delivered in a spot where only the receiver can make the catch, can present its own set of unique challenges specifically against Browner. For one, it's hard to spot such a ball in mid-flight, but that task is not made any easier by Browner's length.
"Pretty much it's just all focus," Thompkins said of the catch, "trying to lock in on the ball, making sure I keep my eyes on the ball and making sure I locate it and as soon as I get my hands on it, make sure I put it away."
Here are some more observations from Wednesday's practice, the second of the team's mandatory minicamp.
Missing from practice: Aaron Dobson, Alfonzo Dennard, Dominique Easley, Wilson Van Hooser, Armond Armstead, Marcus Forston.
Limited participants: Ryan Mallett, Matthew Slater, Justin Green, D.J. Williams, Deontae Skinner, Jeremy Gallon, Rob Gronkowski, Darrelle Revis.
Passing stats (unofficial, combined 7-on-7 and 11-on-11): Tom Brady went 9-of-12; Jimmy Garoppolo went 9-of-19.
Drops: Asa Watson, Jeremy Johnson, James Develin.
First observation: The heat. Temperatures approached 87 degrees in Foxborough Wednesday. The offensive linemen could be seen sweating through their shirts within the first 30 minutes of practice.
After his best practice in a Patriots uniform, Garoppolo went right back to his inconsistent ways. For every pass into a tight window, there was a pass that was well off-target. There was also another fumble, and as noted by our friend Nick Underhill of MassLive.com, Garoppolo has now fumbled in each of the five practices that were open to the media.
Gronkowski and Slater were part of the group that went into the Dana Farber field house at the end of pre-practice stretches, but the two were spotted running up and down the hill next to the practice field during practice.
A short slap fight broke out between wide receiver Reese Wiggins and cornerback Malcolm Butler. Wiggins ran an in route over the middle, and Butler went in to break up the pass, swiping down on Wiggins' shoulder from behind. The contact was a little more aggressive than we're used to seeing in a pad-less practice, which may have caused Wiggins' frustration.
Duron Harmon has been running with Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Devin McCourty, but Tavon Wilson earned some reps with those three Wednesday. It was one of the first times we've seen anyone besides Harmon and Patrick Chung in that spot with the top grouping.
As mentioned by colleague Zuri Berry, Revis was on the field one minute and disappeared the next. There was no indication that he had suffered an injury. There is also some disagreement within the media as to whether Revis was even out there in the first place.
Thompkins was not the only one making some spectacular catches on Wednesday. Develin made a leaping touchdown grab in 11-on-11 work off a Brady pass. Later on, Wiggins made a beautiful catch from Garoppolo on a seam route in double coverage in 11-on-11 drills.
Rookie guard Jon Halapio continues to get repetitions at left guard in place of Mankins, who continues his rehab work. Halapio played exclusively right guard in college, so his practice at a new position is notable and important; the Patriots like their offensive linemen to be able to fill multiple roles in a pinch.
Veteran linebacker James Anderson had not made a big impact before Wednesday, but he had an active role in the defense and broke up a pass from Garoppolo to wide receiver Jeremy Gallon.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski was attempting field goals from as long as 64 yards, and drove one of his attempts through the uprights. There was no pass-rush from an opposing special teams unit, but Gostkowski was consistently getting enough leg on the ball and missing wide to the right.
Brady finished the practice as the last one on the field, practicing side-arm passes with a trainer and then running while being tugged from behind by a rope.