The New England Patriots might be forced to turn to a pair of practice squad players for their high-stakes matchup against the Buffalo Bills in Week 16. Tre Nixon and Kristian Wilkerson are the next men up in case fellow wide receivers Kendrick Bourne, Nelson Agholor and N’Keal Harry are unable to go on Sunday.
With Bourne, Agholor and Harry no safe bets to participate in the contest, New England’s wide receiver group has been thinned out significantly.
Whereas Bourne was placed on the Covid-19 reserve list earlier this week, both Agholor and Harry departed Saturday’s loss to the Indianapolis Colts due to injury: Agholor hurt his head in the third quarter and was quickly ruled out, while his replacement, Harry, appeared to suffer a similar injury late in the fourth period.
As a result, the Patriots have only four healthy wide receivers available at the moment: Jakobi Meyers, who leads the team in receptions and receiving yards, punt returner Gunner Olszewski, and the aforementioned Nixon and Wilkerson. The next three days will determine the group’s outlook heading into the weekend, but it is not unrealistic that New England might have to rely on both Nixon and Wilkerson at least in some capacity.
On Wednesday, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was asked about the two and he spoke highly of their development behind the scenes.
“Tre worked extremely hard,” he said about Nixon. “I’ve been really impressed with his work ethic. He does everything we ask him to do and more, and he’s improved quite a bit. A young player, still has a way to go, of course, but he’s working hard and has improved considerably.”
Nixon joined the Patriots as a seventh-round selection in this year’s draft. Hand-picked by long-time research director Ernie Adams, the rookie receiver appeared in two of the team’s preseason games and caught two passes for 11 yards.
His performance as a primary slot option was not enough to earn him a spot on the roster, but he rejoined the club via its practice squad shortly after his release. Nixon spent the last 15 weeks on the developmental roster without seeing any game-day action.
Wilkerson, meanwhile, is already in his second year in the league. The former rookie free agent, who joined New England via the Tennessee Titans last year, spent virtually his entire career so far on the Patriots’ practice squad, but he was called up on two different occasions: he appeared in one game each in 2020 and 2021 so far, playing a combined six offensive snaps.
“Wilk’s really improved in every area of the game,” Belichick said about him. “First of all just his overall maturity and professionalism; just the way he prepares, trains, takes care of himself. He’s 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 his route-running and his blocking, all things that go into being a receiver; catching the ball. He consistently shows up in practice — a guy we have trouble covering.”
Belichick pointed out that Wilkerson would regularly be asked to imitate the opponent’s number one wide receiver to help the defensive preparation. Leading up to the Bills game, for example, he would likely play Buffalo WR1 Stefon Diggs in practice.
As a result, he has seen his fair share of action against quality opposition in practice.
“Generally, depending on who we play, he would play the other team’s best receiver. He gets a lot of opportunities and gives us a good look on that, which gives him an opportunity to show up on plays that the other team’s player is heavily targeted on,” Belichick said.
“He has been a productive player for us in the kicking game as well in practice. It’s obviously different in the games, but a big receiver that can run and has some playing strength.”
Now, the Patriots might need him and Nixon to start showing up in a game-setting as well. Obviously, though, it remains to be seen whether or not elevating them to the game-day squad will really be necessary this week. Agholor, Harry and Bourne could all theoretically return before the game against Buffalo, with Belichick saying about the latter that there is a chance he comes back under the league’s Covid-19 protocols.
No matter what happens, Belichick appears to be confident in the development of his practice squad receivers.
“Both those guys come in, they’re ready to go, they work hard every day, and they’ve gotten better,” he said about Wilkerson and Nixon. “That’s always an encouraging sign. We’ll see where that goes but they’re trending in the right direction.”