With free agency and the draft firmly in the rear-view mirror and organized team activities underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 85 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 men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with third-year wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson.
Name: Kristian Wilkerson
Position: Wide receiver
Jersey number: 17
Opening day age: 25
Size: 6-foot-1, 215 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 ERFA)
What is his experience? Before joining the NFL as a rookie free agent with the Tennessee Titans in May 2020, Wilkerson spent five years at Southeast Missouri State. After redshirting as a true freshman, 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 in the 2020 draft. After signing with the Titans and spending the summer with them, he moved on to the Patriots. Since joining the organization, Wilkerson appeared in four games while spending both his rookie and sophomore campaigns on the club’s practice squad. All in all, he has been on the field for 84 snaps and been on the receiving end of four passes that he took for a combined 42 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
What did his 2021 season look like? Even though he received just two regular season snaps during his 2020 rookie campaign with the team, New England decided to keep Wilkerson around before the expiration of his practice squad contract. The former UDFA was signed to a one-year futures deal, earning the opportunity to compete for a spot on the team’s active or developmental roster. He made sure not to go down without a fight and despite some ups and downs generally looked good during training camp.
Wilkerson also was quite busy in preseason, appearing in all three games and playing 119 of 199 offensive snaps (59.8%). Despite this and leading the team in both receptions (13) and receiving yards (147), the Patriots decided to release Wilkerson ahead of the roster cutdown deadline. However, his performance allowed him to earn a spot on the team’s practice squad after he went through the waiver wire unclaimed. And even though he would spend the entire season there, he did see some increased in-game action.
In total, Wilkerson was elevated to the game-day squad on four different occasions and took the field in three of those games. While he was on the field for only a combined seven snaps in Weeks 9 and 16, he delivered an impressive outing in Week 17 versus the Jacksonville Jaguars: playing 60 of a possible 72 snaps on the offensive side of the ball that day (83.3%), Wilkerson caught the first four passes of his career. He gained 42 yards in the process and even found the end zone twice.
Besides his contributions on offense — which can still be described as limited despite his game against the Jaguars — Wilkerson also saw action on special teams. He played 15 snaps during his three active games, moving between the kickoff and punt return units as well as the kickoff coverage squad. He did not register any statistics, however. Nonetheless, Wilkerson’s 2021 season as a whole was a relatively successful campaign when compared to what was a somewhat quiet rookie year.
What is his projected role? Even though he saw only limited opportunities over the last two years, it has become clear that the Patriots view him primarily as a perimeter receiver. Accordingly, Wilkerson will play such a role again in 2022 and compete for snaps on what is a deep X-receiver group. Despite the solid chemistry he showed with quarterback Mac Jones during his only extended game action last season, he projects as a backup player at best.
Does he have positional versatility? 84 regular season snaps into his NFL career, Wilkerson has shown limited versatility: he aligned on the perimeter on 72.6 percent of his snaps (61) and was used only sparingly in other spots across the lineup. While his sample size is admittedly small, the 25-year-old was primarily an outside wideout in college as well and all things considered projects to have little upside in any other roles.
What is his special teams value? As noted above, Wilkerson was on the field for 15 of the Patriots’ special teams snaps in 2021 and saw action on the kickoff and punt return units — serving as force player and defensive lineman — as well as a front-line player on kickoff coverage squad. The expectation is that he will be employed similarly heading into 2022; if so he would play roughly one fifth of snaps in the game’s third phase.
What is his salary cap situation? Wilkerson was signed to a reserve/futures pact following the Patriots’ playoff exit, essentially playing on a one-year contract at a total value and salary cap hit of $835,000. The deal consists of a $825,000 salary as well as a $10,000 workout bonus and does currently not qualify for top-51 status: Wilkerson will only count against New England’s salary cap if he is on the 53-man roster following final cutdowns.
How safe is his roster spot? The Patriots made some considerable investments at their X-receiver spot this offseason, acquiring DeVante Parker via trade and selecting Tyquan Thornton in the second round of the draft. With Nelson Agholor also capable of playing on the outside of the formation, the team has three locks under contract at Wilkerson’s spot. Accordingly, the third-year man is in a difficult position; he could make he roster with a strong training camp and preseason outing but faces a steep uphill climb.
One-sentence projection: Wilkerson will not make the Patriots’ 53-man roster but is a realistic candidate to earn one of the team’s practice squad spots yet again.