The Patriots officially announced their practice squad Monday morning and there was a familiar face in the mix.
Wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins returned to the team he began his career with as an undrafted free agent in 2013. Thompkins caught 32 passes for 466 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie before being let go last October. He spent the rest of 2014 in Oakland, and when the Raiders let him go over the weekend he returned, albeit as a member of the practice squad.
Bill Belichick seemed enthusiastic about the opportunity to add some depth to a receiving corps that is down to just four players – Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson and Chris Harper – on the active roster.
"I think he's a quality practice squad player. He was a roster player for us, he was a roster player for Oakland, so to have that level of player on our roster -- but not [really] on our roster -- I think is good," Belichick said. "It gives us a quality depth player there; we had that same player basically on our team .
"We'll see how long it takes but it shouldn't be too long from a re-learning standpoint. He's a good learner, but just to get back into what we're doing and all that, to be able to compete for playing time based on where he was when he was here before, it looks like he still -- based on a short look yesterday -- has good skills to contribute. He has experience playing in the slot, which he did more at Oakland than he did here. So he's kind of developed some versatility. So we'll see where it goes, but I think we're happy to have him, and a player of his caliber, in that position."
There were some other familiar names among the 10-member squad as well, including tight end Asante Cleveland, linebackers Xzavier Dickson and Darius Fleming, safety Brandon King, cornerback Dax Swanson and guard Chris Barker. Rounding out the list are wide receiver Nathan Palmer, tackle Blaine Clausell and defensive tackle Jimmy Staten, although it's possible the team will bring back tackle Cameron Fleming if the 2014 fourth-round pick clears waivers.
The 6-6, 339-pound Clausell was an undrafted rookie out of Mississippi State who spent the summer with Baltimore. Palmer, 26, was on the Niners practice squad in 2012 before being signed by Indianapolis, where he played five games. He also spent time on the practice squads for Miami and Denver in 2013 and appeared in one game for the Broncos in 2014 before finishing the season on the Broncos practice squad. Staten was a fifth-round pick by Seattle out of Middle Tennessee State in 2014 but the 6-3, 311-pounder spent most of the season on the Seahawks practice squad. Seattle released him Aug. 17 and the Giants claimed him the following day, but he was released again Sept. 1.
Center of attention
The Patriots practiced at Gillette Stadium and for the second straight day center Bryan Stork was not in attendance during the brief portion of work the media is allowed to watch. Stork left practice Aug. 7 and missed the remainder of training camp and the entire preseason with a reported concussion.
Reports surfaced last week indicating that he had been medically cleared and he returned to the practice field on Saturday, but then missed at least the start of the last two workouts. The Boston Herald indicated that Stork expects to play against the Steelers Thursday night, but if he can't get back on the field for Tuesday's practice that may be in serious question at this point.
During some early practice drills it appeared the first offensive line consisted of, from left to right, Nate Solder, Josh Kline, David Andrews, Tre' Jackson and Sebastian Vollmer. Interestingly, Ryan Wendell, who received plenty of kids words from Belichick at the coach's press conference, was working at center with the second group.
Belichick was particularly complimentary of Wendell's versatility.
"That's definitely a plus. He's worked at all three spots as we've gone out there the last week or so," Belichick said of Wendell. "We'll see how that all goes. He's helped us on kickoff return, center, both guards so he's working at different spots. We'll see how he does and maybe it's a where we need him situation."
In addition to Stork, defensive lineman Khyri Thornton, who was claimed off waivers from Green Bay on Sunday, was not seen at practice. A report indicated that Thornton had yet to arrive and was still a member of the team. LeGarrette Blount, who is not allowed to practice with the team while serving his suspension, was absent as well.
Belichick was asked about the prospect of having a pair of towering tight ends on the field together in Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler. While that is an element of the offense that has many fans salivating, the coach downplayed it.
"We'll see. We haven't seen that yet this year," Belichick said. "We'll see how teams will deal with whatever personnel we have out there. It's hard to talk about just one or two players. We'll try to create situations that stress the defense and if they overplay one thing and underplay something else then hopefully we'll go to that softer point. That's pretty much what we're trying to do anyway, with whoever the players that we have out there that's kind of a basic philosophy."
Belichick wouldn't even consider the idea of the two towering tight ends on the field together unique. Asked if he's had two such tight ends in the past, the coach quickly mentioned the Giants with Mark Bavaro (6-4) and Zeke Mowatt (6-5) as well as Bavaro and Howard Cross (6-3), although none of those duos was quite as big as the 6-6 Gronkowski and the 6-7 Chandler.
"I think we have to focus on doing what the coaches have drawn up for us," Chandler said. "Just going out there and doing our job. If we're able to execute that's going to put stress on the defense. Offensively, whether that's running the ball, throwing the ball, that's what we need to do."
Belichick praises Brown
The Steelers have a high-powered offense but the unit will be without some key parts Thursday night. Running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Martavis Bryant are both suspended and center Maurkice Pouncey is on the shelf with an ankle injury.
But Belichick was quick to point out that the Steelers cupboard is by no means bear. That's because Antonio Brown, the league's top wideout a year ago, is ready to go. Brown caught 129 passes for 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns a year ago, and he'll put plenty of stress on the Patriots revamped secondary.
"Could they get him the ball more?" Belichick wondered when asked about the Steelers star. "I guess they could. But they get it to him a lot. He's definitely a go-to guy in the passing game, not just in terms of just making plays and [Ben] Roethlisberger going to him, but in terms of scheme, and plays that are designed to -- if not get him the ball -- at least get him a look. Then if the defense takes him away, they can go somewhere else, but at least get him a look at it.
"He's got really good quickness so he's got the ability to get separation, even when guys are close to him, his one-step or two-step quickness to get away. And he's got really good hands, so he doesn't need a lot of separation. He's a good technique route-runner, so he does a really good job of making routes look the same that are different. Making the inside route and the outside look the same or the over and the corner route look the same. Things like that. His releases are good. He does a good job at the line of scrimmage of getting into his route and attacking the defense quickly."
The NFL's social media types were seemingly at it again when the league tweeted out a graphic asking fans to offer opinions on which quarterback will lead their team to Super Bowl 50. The graphic included seven quarterbacks, and guess who wasn't among them?
That's right, while Arizona's Carson Palmer made the cut, Tom Brady did not. Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson joined Palmer among the group, while the reigning Super Bowl MVP evidently wasn't worth of inclusion. The Tweet has since been deleted.
For those who care about such things, here are some of the current numbers for members of the practice squad: Thompkins (15), Palmer (16), Swanson (31, he switched with Tarell Brown, who is now wearing 25), Clausell (68) and Staten (65), Dickson (42), Fleming (58), Cleveland (44), Barker (64) and King (36).