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Patriots 2021 roster breakdown: Will Kristian Wilkerson find his way onto the roster?

Related: Patriots roster breakdown: WR Jakobi Meyers

New England Patriots Practice Staff Photo By Matt Stone/ MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

With the third phase of voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”

The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.

Today, the series kicks continues with wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson.

Hard facts

Name: Kristian Wilkerson

Position: Wide receiver

Jersey number: 17

Opening day age: 24

Size: 6-foot-1, 215 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 ERFA)

Experience

What is his experience? Before joining the NFL as a rookie free agent signing by the Tennessee Titans in May 2020, Wilkerson spent five years at Southeast Missouri State. After redshirting during his true freshman season, he went on to appear in 47 games and set new school records for receptions (219), receiving yards (3,540), and receiving touchdowns (33) — a significant portion of this production coming during his final two campaigns as a Redhawk. Wilkerson was voted to the All-Ohio Valley Conference team both years.

Despite his productivity at the collegiate level, Wilkerson did not hear his name called ib the 2020 draft. After signing with the Titans and spending the summer with them, he moved on to the Patriots. Wilkerson appeared in one game for the team, but not register any statistics. His experience at the pro level is therefore limited to a few in-game snaps as well as offseason and training camp workouts that were non-traditional due to the impact the Coronavirus pandemic had on the league during his rookie season.

What did his 2020 season look like? Even though he was coming off the best season of his college career — one during which he caught 71 passes for 1,350 yards and 10 scores — Wilkerson entered the pre-draft evaluation period flying under the radar. That being said, he did have one advantage over some of his fellow wide receiver prospects: he was able to hold a Pro Day before Covid-19 forced the workout sessions to be canceled all over the country; he also posted some solid numbers that day in March.

Nevertheless, as noted above, Wilkerson did not get drafted. He did, however, quickly find a professional home when he signed a three-year rookie free agent pact with the Titans. While he spent the entire summer and training camp in Tennessee, Wilkerson was hurt by the NFL deciding to nix preseason games in light of the pandemic. Undrafted rookie such as himself were hurt by the cancelation, and the Titans ultimately decided to go with more experienced options and to release him on roster cutdown day.

Wilkerson became a popular player once he hit the open market — seven teams were interested in his services — and eventually ended up on New England’s practice squad. After spending the first eight weeks of the season on the developmental roster, he was elevated to the game day team for a Week 9 prime time bout with the New York Jets. Not only did he dress for the contest, Wilkerson also saw the field: he played a total of two snaps, but failed to register any statistics.

After automatically reverting to the practice squad following his NFL debut, Wilkerson remained there for the rest of the year. Once their season was over following the regular season, the Patriots decided to sign the wideout to a reserve/futures pact that would give him a chance to compete for a roster spot yet again in his first full offseason with the organization.

2021 preview

What is his projected role? While it remains to be seen how the Patriots will use him in practice and preseason, the expectation is that Wilkerson will line up on the perimeter, primarily as an X-receiver. Both of his snaps during the 2020 season came split out wide, and he also played that role in college. New England appears well set in this area, though, with Nelson Agholor and N’Keal Harry both capable of playing out of the X-spot as well.

What is his special teams value? Wilkerson could theoretically be used in the kicking game given his solid straight-line speed — he ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash at his Pro Day — and frame. His experience is limited, however, especially when it comes to running back kicks himself: he did not return any kickoffs or punts during his four non-redshirt years at Southeast Missouri State. He could be given other roles in the game’s third phase, though.

Does he have positional versatility? Two snaps into his NFL career, Wilkerson has not shown any versatility: he aligned on the left-side perimeter both times his number was called upon. Obviously, this sample size is not reflective of what he could bring to the table in terms of positional usage, though. That said, the 24-year-old was primarily an outside wideout in college as well and projects to have limited upside in other roles.

What is his salary cap situation? After ending the 2020 season on New England’s practice squad, Wilkerson was re-signed via a one-year futures contract. As such, he is currently not counting against the team’s salary cap: his cap number of $660,000 is below the Top-51 threshold at the moment, meaning that he would only hit the books if he makes the roster through cutdown day.

What is his roster outlook? Wilkerson’s limited role as a rookie in combination with the upgrades New England made at the wide receiver position in free agency puts him in a difficult spot. Depending on whether or not N’Keal Harry is kept for another year — the former first-round pick has been the subject of trade speculation this offseason — he could find himself in a five-player race for one or two roster spots. The odds appear to be against him, but good practice and training camp performances could put him in a solid position for at least the practice squad.