PATS REPORTER

Perry's Mailbag: What are realistic expectations for Kristian Wilkerson?

PATS REPORTER

The New England Patriots are headed to Miami for their regular-season finale matchup vs. the Dolphins. Before Sunday's game at Hard Rock Stadium, let's get to this week's mailbag...

It's a good question, Rick. I think people are excited about Kristian Wilkerson after he scored twice against the Jaguars, and I get it. But it's also instructive to think in realistic terms when it comes to Wilkerson and his developmental track.

First, from a logistical standpoint, he has reverted to the practice squad and so would need to be called up to the 53-man roster in order to play in the season finale Sunday. There are a variety of ways that could occur, but when comparing him against N'Keal Harry -- who was made a healthy scratch in favor of Wilkerson -- he is not on the active roster and Harry still is. For now. 

If he is brought back onto the gameday roster in Miami, with Nelson Agholor apparently headed toward a return, Wilkerson would likely be the team's No. 4 receiver. That's a part-time role, typically reserved for someone who plays in the kicking game.

That kicking-game stipulation is partly why I believed the Patriots would find a way to move N'Keal Harry before the start of the season. He'd requested a trade earlier in the offseason and doesn't have a regular role in the kicking game. But the Patriots kept him, and he became a reserve wideout and something of a blocking specialist as part of some of New England's bigger-bodied offensive packages.

 

Wilkerson, though, has real special-teams ability. He played four snaps in the kicking game against Jacksonville -- two on the kick-return team and two on the punt-return team -- and back in Week 9 he played five plays as part of the kickoff unit.

Makes sense. He's an athlete. Coming out of Southeast Missouri State, he ran a 4.46-second 40 and a lightning-quick three-cone drill of 6.68 seconds. He also jumped 39.5 inches in the vertical. He ended up with the third-highest "Relative Athletic Score," generated by Kent Lee Platte.

That athleticism and special-teams potential is what helped him get signed by the Titans as an undrafted player in 2020. After being released, he was picked up and signed to the practice squad by New England. This summer he showed some chemistry with Mac Jones and finished the preseason catching 13 of 15 targets for 147 yards.

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He was cut and re-signed to the practice squad, but he's done enough there that he earned a regular-season nod over a first-round pick with an added year of experience.

"He’s had a couple good weeks of practice and a good week this week," Bill Belichick said Monday. "I felt like he had earned the opportunity. He made a couple plays yesterday to help the team ...

"Kristian did a good job of preparing all year as he has every week. He works hard in practice and has improved a lot, both offensively and in the kicking game, and tried to take advantage of his opportunity yesterday. That’s always a good thing for players to get an opportunity, be able to capitalize on it, and show their teammates and the team that they can contribute. It’s kind of how it goes."

We'll see if Wilkerson can continue to make the most of those opportunities by producing in games. He was one of a group of practice-squadders who were "protected" (meaning unable to be signed away to active rosters of clubs) this week so the Patriots are planning to have him in their plans.

But the question you've asked, Rick, is who can Wilkerson be? I like making comps. They are what they are. They aren't gospel. They're a guess. We love 'em during draft seasons so why not take a stab in a situation like this one.

After thinking about it a bit ... special-teams ability ... good size ... more of an outside-the-numbers wideout ... physical ... coming from a small college program ... slowly grinding his way to an NFL role ... I came up with Chris Hogan. Making a Hogan-esque impact would be a major victory for the Patriots, and Wilkerson still has a ways to go before he gets there. But Hogan, remember, was on his fourth NFL team when he started to make a name for himself in Buffalo. He parlayed that into a deal with the Patriots and two Super Bowl rings.

 

At 6-foot-1 and over 200 pounds, both Wilkerson and Hogan are similarly built. And from an athleticism standpoint, they're relatively similar as well. So let's stick with that. If it pans for Wilkerson, maybe the Patriots have a Hogan-type on their hands.

Let's get to the rest of the 'Bag ...

I think it tells us that they're focused on playing CFL-style football. That means if they can avoid getting to third down altogether, they will. They were atrocious on third down against the Bills at Gillette Stadium, and as long as they can convert first downs and stay ahead of the chains, they're going to feel better about their chances. That keeps the running game involved. It keeps the play-action passing game involved. It's where they want to be. 

Are they eschewing shot opportunities down the field on second-and-short just to make sure they've picked up a fresh set of downs? Should they feel good about their chances of converting a third-and-short? Yes and yes. (They're a slightly above-average offense -- 14th in the NFL, per Sharp Football Stats -- when faced with third-and-two or less. Overall on third down, they're seventh in the league, converting 43.2 percent of those opportunities this season.)

But if it means making life easier on the quarterback, they'll take it. Does that mean they don't trust him? I think it means they know they're at their best as an entire offensive unit if they can play on schedule.

Plenty of ways to add a wideout this offseason. We hit on a few names in this year's draft on this edition of the Next Pats podcast. There are some names in free agency, but I'm not sure they're going to be major players there. They still owe Nelson Agholor real money. Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne are under contract.

If they're going to get a vertical element in this offense, it's going to be Agholor or someone they find in the draft. That's my guess, at least.

You're going to want to keep an eye on Alabama's Slade Bolden when the Crimson Tide take on Georgia. 

Johnny and Justin ... Glad you asked! Wrote up my thoughts here. But of that group, I would say the Bengals would be the best pull for the Patriots in the Wild Card round. Coaching mismatch. Cincinnati's offensive line and defense are not very good. They have weapons, no doubt. But all in all, that's the best group the Patriots could face. And right now? Seems most likely.

 

According to Over The Cap, the Patriots will have about $28 million in available space this offseason. That's 18th in the NFL. Just for comparison's sake, the team had about $69 million in space last offseason.

I think it's corner, Jordan. Just not sure they'll invest highly there. They've found a bunch of capable (and more than capable) players at that position late on draft weekend. We'll see.

Definitely. Just have to take care of the football, play lights-out defense, and be really precise in the short-to-intermediate passing game. There are multiple ways to skin the NFL postseason cat. It's just the game the Patriots play comes with little margin for error. Teams with quick-strike explosive passing attacks can hide some of their warts with what they do through the air.

I think so. When healthy he's good enough and accurate enough to be an average quarterback. That's essentially what Mac Jones has been. No doubt in my mind he could get this team to the postseason. The team wouldn't be the same though. Garoppolo costs more than $20 million more against the cap compared to Jones.

I know it's not about the size of the dog in the fight and all that, but ... give me Tyson.

Right now? I would go Green Bay. But I could see Kansas City being right there if they play as well as they're capable of defensively. They were humming on that side of the ball earlier this season. Tampa is too banged-up, and I don't believe strongly enough in Matthew Stafford to say the Rams will be there.

We were really a modern program when you think about it. Lots of size. Power bats. The Villard brothers kept things light. But we were Rays-esque in that we didn't ever win the big one. Waiting for the inevitable Man In The Arena-style documentary on that group.