Isaiah Zuber. Kristian Wilkerson. Mason Kinsey.
Get to know those names. One or more of them could be catching passes from Cam Newton on Sunday.
With Julian Edelman (knee) and N’Keal Harry (concussion) both sidelined with injuries, the New England Patriots likely will enter Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills with Damiere Byrd, Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski as the only wide receivers on their 53-man roster.
In previous years, the Patriots might have rolled with that trio and hoped for the best. But with teams now allowed to temporarily elevate players from their practice squad without taking up roster spots, they’ll likely call up some combination of Zuber, Wilkerson and Kinsey to bolster their paper-thin stable of pass-catchers.
“They’re all young players,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in his Friday morning video conference. “(They’re) working hard, learning, getting better, and we’ll see. There may be an opportunity here. We’ll see how things shake out as we go through the next couple days and so forth. But we work with all the players. We work with the young players, the guys that are on the roster, guys that are on the practice squad.”
All three of New England’s practice squad wideouts are undrafted rookies. Zuber has the most experience, in terms of both game action and time in the Patriots’ system.
The Mississippi State product signed with the Patriots immediately after the 2020 NFL Draft and has been with them ever since, landing on the practice squad after being released during final cuts. He’s been elevated to the gameday roster three times this season and has stood out positively in limited playing time, picking up a first down on each of his first three NFL touches (13-yard jet sweep, 8-yard reverse, 16-yard reception).
Because two of Zuber’s three call-ups were as a COVID-19 replacement, he has one more standard elevation remaining. Teams can elevate a practice squad player twice before needing to sign him to their 53-man roster.
“(Zuber) has the most experience of those players from being here in training camp and having a better background and understanding of what we’re doing,” Belichick said. “But Wilkerson and Kinsey have been here for a while, too, so they’re certainly gaining on that. Zuber’s got good skill. He’s got good size, runs well, catches well, has made some plays with the ball in his hands. So we’ll see.”
Wilkerson and Kinsey have yet to make their NFL debuts. Both were highly productive at lower levels of college football (FCS Southeast Missouri State and Division III Berry College, respectively) and spent training camp with the Tennessee Titans before venturing to New England.
Wilkerson has an intriguing blend of size, athleticism and explosiveness at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds. The 5-10, 198-pound Kinsey is a well-built slot receiver. The latter is in his second stint on New England’s practice squad, having been released in early October and re-signed last week.
“Zuber’s been up for some games this year, but I’d say all of those guys have good qualities to work with,” Belichick said. “We brought Mason back. He was here, and then we had some roster things and had to shuffle around, but we got him back. I’m glad we have him back. So we’ll keep working.
“If they get an opportunity, then I hope they’re ready to take advantage of it.”