Mac Jones had a favorite target in the New England Patriots’ preseason opener Thursday night at Gillette Stadium.
For the rookie quarterback out of Alabama, that target was a 2020 undrafted free agent out of Southeast Missouri State whom he turned to on nine occasions in his NFL debut.
Wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson.
“Just doing what the coaches coach in the classroom and having good fundamentals out there,” Wilkerson said in his postgame press conference following New England’s 22-13 win over the Washington Football Team. “Doing all you can do. The ball will come if you do the right things and make the right plays, so hopefully I can keep on doing that.”
The ball found the Ohio Valley Conference product for a team-high six catches and a team-high 39 yards in the exhibition. Wilkerson played alongside Jones from the closing seconds of the first quarter into the closing minutes of the third quarter.
He was on the radar for the No. 15 overall pick in five-wide sets and no-huddle situations. He was on the radar from the underneath to the intermediate. There were curl and comeback plays as well as a drag, a speed out and a pair of run-pass option tosses to Wilkerson.
“He is confident and I love him as a leader,” Wilkerson said of Jones, who finished the evening 13-of-19 passing for 87 yards in relief of starter Cam Newton. “I’m glad to be his teammate and be a receiver playing with him.”
Along the way came what had the makings of an in-the-bucket touchdown, but Washington cornerback Torry McTyer had a hand. That throw from Jones would have added 34 yards to the stat line for Wilkerson, who was also playing in his first preseason game as a Patriot after spending training camp with the Tennessee Titans last summer.
“It was a great ball by Mac,” Wilkerson told reporters of the go route down the left sideline. “I have just got to adjust better to it. I have got to do my part. So, I just have to go watch the tape and see what I can do better. I could run the defender off better or make a better catch.”
Wilkerson, 24, set Southeast Missouri State records with 219 catches for 3,540 yards and 33 touchdowns. He played in 47 career games for the Redhawks, and ran the three-cone drill in 6.68 seconds to go with a 40-yard dash of 4.46 seconds at the program’s pro day after not drawing an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine.
Waived by Tennessee at the league’s roster deadline last September, Wilkerson joined New England’s practice squad at its formation.
There the 6-foot-1, 214-pound wideout chose to remain when interest elsewhere arrived. He served as a standard elevation in November versus the New York Jets and reverted to the scout team after playing two downs. And by January, Wilkerson had agreed to a futures contract that could carry a base salary of $660,000 on the 53-man roster.
More chances to get there are ahead. Wilkerson finds himself on a depth chart led by 2020 receiving leader Jakobi Meyers and veteran March investments Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. He saw 32 offensive snaps versus Washington, which stood second among New England wide receivers behind former first-round pick N’Keal Harry’s 36.
Wilkerson spelled from the outside into the slot. And he factored in as a gunner on special teams, where he’s studied under All-Pro Patriots captain Matthew Slater, and where eight snaps were logged between return and coverage work on kickoffs and punts.
“Every rep is critical, so you have to handle it the same way,” said Wilkerson. “Live game or practice, you have got to treat it the same way so you can’t switch it on and switch it off.”