Why Two Patriots Practice Squadders Could Play Important Roles Vs. Bills

The Patriots could be shorthanded at receiver

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Get to know the names Kristian Wilkerson and Tre Nixon. You could see them catching passes from Mac Jones this Sunday.

Wilkerson and Nixon are the New England Patriots’ practice squad receivers. Both could be pressed into game action against the Buffalo Bills if Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor are unable to play.

Bourne (reserve/COVID-19 list) and Agholor (concussion protocol) both missed Wednesday’s practice, putting their availability for Sunday in doubt. Before practice, head coach Bill Belichick offered positive reviews of their potential fill-ins.

Wilkerson is the more experienced of the two, having joined the Patriots as an undrafted rookie just before the start of the 2020 season. A wildly productive pass-catcher at FCS Southeast Missouri State, he’s been elevated to New England’s gameday roster twice but has played a total of just six offensive snaps, seeing zero targets.

The 6-foot-1, 214-pound Wilkerson made an early push for a 53-man roster spot this past summer before a rash of drops derailed his bid. Still, he was New England’s leading receiver in the preseason, catching 13 passes on 17 targets for 147 yards.

Belichick said Wilkerson has developed “quite a bit” in his two seasons as a Patriots practice squadder.

“Wilk’s really improved in every area of the game,” Belichick said. “First of all, overall, just the maturity and professionalism. Just the way he prepares, trains, takes care of himself, is ready to go every day. He’s very dependable when he walks in the building. You know what you’re going to get from him as a receiver and a blocker. He’s improved in his route-running, his blocking, all things that go into being a receiver, catching the ball. He consistently shows up in practice.”

On New England’s scout team, Wilkerson often portrays the opponent’s No. 1 receiver — and, according to Belichick, is a handful for the Patriots’ starting defensive backs.

“(He’s) a guy we have trouble covering,” the coach said. “Generally, depending on who we play, but generally speaking, he would play the other team’s best receiver. (He) gets a lot of opportunities, gives us a good look on that, and it gives him an opportunity to show up on plays that the other team’s player is heavily targeted on. He has been a productive player in the kicking game for us, as well, in practice.

“It’s obviously different in the games, but (he’s) a bigger receiver that can run that has some playing strength. He continues to improve and grow.”

Nixon also has spent all season on the Patriots’ practice squad. The UCF product came to New England with elevated expectations after Ernie Adams, Belichick’s longtime director of football research, personally selected him in the seventh round of the 2021 NFL Draft (242nd overall).

Viewed as a dark-horse roster candidate for that reason, Nixon wound up having a nondescript training camp, missing time due to injury and catching just two passes for 11 yards in the preseason. He has yet to play his first regular season NFL snap but has impressed Belichick with his attitude behind the scenes.

“Tre works extremely hard,” Belichick said. “I’ve been really impressed with his work ethic. He does everything that we ask him to do and more. He’s improved quite a bit. (He’s) young player, still has a way to go, of course, but he’s working hard and has improved considerably. …

“Both those guys come in, they’re ready to go. They work hard every day. They’ve gotten better. That’s always an encouraging sign. We?ll see where that goes, but they’re trending in the right direction.”

The Patriots currently have just three healthy wideouts on their active roster: No. 1 receiver Jakobi Meyers, who leads the team in catches (65) and targets (102) by a wide margin; N’Keal Harry, who practiced Wednesday after a shot to the head knocked him out of Saturday’s game; and return specialist Gunner Olszewski, who has just one reception this season and eight in his career.

Harry likely would see the largest uptick in playing time if Bourne and Agholor are unavailable. The disappointing 2019 first-rounder boasts a team-best 16.9 yards-per-catch average this season and has been an asset in the run game, but he’s averaging just one reception per game.

Bourne leads the Patriots in receiving yards (667 and five touchdowns on 45 catches). Agholor ranks second among New England wideouts in snaps played and fourth on the team in catches (36) and receiving yards (450). Both could be cleared in time to play Sunday if they satisfy NFL COVID and concussion protocols, respectively.

ESPN’s Mike Reiss confirmed Wednesday that Bourne is vaccinated, which Belichick seemed to suggest in his call. Asked whether Bourne has a chance to play against Buffalo, the coach replied: “If he meets the criteria that the league set up, sure.”

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