Heading into their Week Sixteen matchup with the Buffalo Bills, a game which may decide the fate of the AFC East Division in 2021, the New England Patriots have several question marks surrounding their corps of wide receivers.
Both Nelson Agholor and N’Keal Harry were unable to finish Saturday's 27-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, each due to head injuries. Agholor suffered a crushing hit to the head in the third quarter and was unable to return to action. While Harry’s injury (considered to be to both the head and upper body) occurred too late into the game to receive a preliminary diagnosis, the nature of the hit he sustained caused him to miss the remainder of the game.
To make matters worse, wideout Kendrick Bourne was among four Patriots placed on the COVID-19/Reserve list on Monday. The potential loss of Bourne, for any period of time, is significant for New England. The 26-year-old has become one of the Patriots most-reliable receivers. In his first season with New England, Bourne has caught 45 passes for a team-high 667 yards and five touchdowns in 14 games. He has also demonstrated an ability to be a threat in the running game, logging nine carries for 100 yards. The versatile wideout even has thrown one touchdown pass; coming in the form of a 25-yard, first-quarter scoring strike to Agholor against the New York Jets in Week Seven.
Despite Bourne recently declaring himself as asymptomatic, via his social media accounts, (cred: Evan Lazar, CLNS Media) it is still too early to determine whether the Pats’ versatile wideout will be ready for Sunday’s matchup with Buffalo. Should Bourne remain on COVID-19/Reserve, along with both Agholor and Harry in concussion protocol, the Pats face a dilemma of having only two healthy wide receivers on their active roster: Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski.
Though Meyers is considered one of the Patriots most-reliable pass catching targets in 2021, placing the full weight of the positional depth chart on his shoulders for Sunday is much to ask from any wideout. Meyers has caught a team-high 65 passes this season for 664 yards and a touchdown. In the process, he has developed a solid connection with quarterback Mac Jones. In fact, several have made the argument that a healthy Meyers might be sufficient at the position, as the team is likely to utilize their tight ends, as well as veteran Brandon Bolden to receive out of the backfield.
Still, that logic remains flawed, as the Pats will need more than two healthy bodies at the position. Though Olszewski is prolific as a return specialist, his productivity as a pass catcher has been limited to just one catch on two targets this season. In fact, during his three seasons with the Patriots, the 25-year-old has amassed only eight catches for 118 yards and one touchdown.
With the season winding down, it is unlikely (yet, not impossible) that the Patriots would look to the waiver wire for additional assistance for their receivers group. As a result, New England may look to two intriguing, but untested options on their practice squad; Kristian Wilkerson and rookie Tre Nixon.
Since joining the Pats in 2020, Wilkerson has been a mainstay on the team’s practice squad. Yet, his regular-season pro resume is limited to Wilkerson has taken total of six offensive snaps across two practice squad call-ups over the past two seasons, with zero targets. Still, the SE Missouri State product had an impressive showing during training camp. He saw the majority of his reps in an X-Receiver role, in conjunction with the team getting solid contributions at the X from both Nelson Agholor and N’Keal Harry. He also received notable work on special teams drills; at one point, alongside special teams captain. Matthew Slater. However, his preseason spotlight began to dim amidst issues with securing the catch. Though Wilkerson was rumored to be in line for a roster spot, he was released by the team during roster cutdown, and subsequently signed to the practice squad.
Having been drafted by the Pats in the seventh-round of the 2021 NFL Draft, Nixon has the distinction of being Ernie Adams’ final draft selection in the Patriots organization. The product of Central Florida projects as a vertical deep threat. He has NFL-level speed (he ran the 40 at a time of 4.43) and is able to use his speed to shed defenders at the line. Though he lacks some physicality, he is physical enough to make catches in tight coverage. Nixon could be a promising project in the slot, and perhaps an exciting roster elevation for Week Sixteen.
Although each receiver faces a potentially tall task this weekend, their desire and work ethic has caught the eye of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who spoke highly of the pair of wideouts when meeting with the media on Tuesday.
“They work really hard and they put a lot of time and effort into it,” McDaniels said. They stay after and make sure they’re ready to go…I really like those two guys. They’re improving. I like their attitude and mindset. I know they’ll be ready to go if need be.”
Despite their individual upsides, each receiver is cloaked in uncertainty. As New England continues their push for the postseason, they need to be at their best to be victorious in each of their fourth remaining games. This is especially true of Sunday’s matchup with the Bills, a team known for their strong pass defense.
The Patriots will return to the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts, for practice on Wednesday, as they host the Buffalo Bills for a post-Christmas matchup on Sunday, December 26, 2021 at 1:00pm ET.