Five years ago, an undrafted free agent wide receiver was the talk of an NFL camp. Long-time beat reporters and ESPN writers (often the same thing as the newspaper industry felt the effects of online journalism) sang his praises.
One reporter said on August 4th that he was the best wide receiver in training camp, despite competing with three other drafted rookies at his position and a free agent with an early round pedigree and steady success elsewhere.
Another for a national online outlet said he was fantasy football's top bang for your buck on August 21st. It quoted the most respected (and often accurate) beat writer covering the team, who said eight days earlier that, the receiver remained one of the top storylines of the team's training camp.
He beat veteran corners on the team for touchdowns. He did the same against the organization his team hosted for a week of scrimmages. He flashed during preseason games. And he even had a game-winning reception with five seconds on the clock in early October of that year.
However, Kenbrell Thompkins has played for the Patriots (twice), Raiders, and Jets since that excellent training camp run as a rookie where he earned a starting role with the team. His career stats for the past five years (and he's only seen playing time in three of those): 53 catches, 728 yards, and 4 touchdowns. More than half of that production (including all four of his touchdowns) occurred during his rookie year.
I was bullish on Thompkins, a player I identified as a sleeper while he played at Cincinnati. Antonio Brown's cousin performed well at every stop during his circuitous college career and carried that through his first mini camp, OTAs, and training camp. But football is a performance industry and there's a notable difference with the intensity of pressure between practice, dress rehearsals, and the actual touring season. As Ben Watson told me a couple of years ago, when you realize that you're playing with and against grown men who are supporting families and they behave as if this is the case, you realize how much is on the line every year, every week, every quarter, every series, and every play.
At the same time, Tom Brady routinely makes mistakes in practice that would set off beat reporters if Brady didn't have the resume he's earned. These contrasting stories beg the question: What should we make of training camp reports? Are they worthwhile? If they are, how do we discern worthwhile information from the noise?