It appears the New England Patriots will not have starting cornerback Jalen Mills for Saturday night’s wild-card playoff game against the Buffalo Bills.
The Patriots on Friday elevated wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson, defensive tackle Daniel Ekuale, defensive back D’Angelo Ross and cornerback De’Vante Bausby from their practice squad for Saturday’s game.
Ekuale and Ross were designated as COVID-19 replacements on the NFL transaction wire. Since Mills and cornerback Shaun Wade are the only two Patriots players currently on the reserve/COVID-19 list, these moves seem to indicate neither will be cleared in time to play against Buffalo.
(UPDATE: Per NFL rules, Mills and Wade officially are out.)
Mills is a significant loss for New England’s secondary. He started all but one game during the regular season, played 84.6% of defensive snaps and has been one of the Patriots’ most consistent defenders over the last two-plus months, allowing just 1.4 catches and 19 yards per game since Week 9, according to Pro Football Focus.
Buffalo boasts one of the league’s deepest receiving corps, utilizing three or more wideouts more frequently than any other NFL team, per Sharp Football Stats.
Third-year pro Joejuan Williams — a healthy scratch for three of the Patriots’ last four games — is the most likely candidate to take over Mills’ spot in the starting lineup, but Bausby could help fill that void, too. The well-traveled veteran has appeared in 26 games across stints with the Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals since he entered the NFL in 2015. Ten of those appearances came with Denver last season, including one against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium.
Listed at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, Bausby primarily is an outside cornerback — an area of need for New England with Mills sidelined. This is the first gameday elevation of the season for the 28-year-old, who joined the Patriots’ practice squad in late October.
This is the fourth straight call-up for Ross, a slot/safety hybrid who played 46 snaps in last week’s loss to the Miami Dolphins while top nickel back Myles Bryant was on COVID reserve. (Bryant was cleared early this week and should be active Saturday night). It’s Ekuale’s eighth elevation.
Wilkerson returns to the lineup two weeks after catching two touchdown passes in a Week 17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. His elevation could spell another healthy scratch for fellow wideout N’Keal Harry.
Practice squad players are allotted two standard elevations apiece during the regular season, but the NFL removed that cap for the postseason, allowing the Patriots to freely elevate a player like Wilkerson. Asked why the promising receiver was not elevated in Week 18, head coach Bill Belichick noted that Wilkerson was out of standard elevations.
The Patriots ruled out offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn on Friday and listed 12 other players as questionable, including safety Kyle Dugger, defensive tackle Christian Barmore and linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins.
Kickoff at Highmark Stadium is set for 8:15 p.m. ET. Saturday’s forecast for Orchard Park, N.Y., calls for temperatures in the low single digits, potentially making this the coldest game in Patriots franchise history.