The Patriots opened their 2022 preseason with a last-second loss to the Giants, but it was a trio of young receivers that made some of the game's biggest impacts. Kristian Wilkerson (46 snaps, eight catches, 99 yards), Tre Nixon (51 snaps, four catches, 81 yards) and Lil'Jordan Humphrey (44 snaps, six catches, 62 yards, touchdown) led the way as far as volume and big plays, as each looks to make their case for a roster spot amongst a deep receiver room.
In his first game action since college, Nixon had an eventful evening that started with a tough drop on the first third down that the offense faced. But the second-year player rebounded, with contributions on kickoff return (one return, 25 yards) and two explosive plays down the sidelines that helped kick the offense into gear early in the second half.
"It was a good day to just get my feet wet, be out there with the team," said Nixon following the game. "That was my first game experience in a long time, honestly first full game since UCF. Have a lot of work to do, had a couple of drops. Two big plays helped us with a scoring drive. Just need to keep improving. Need to limit the drops, be better on blocking, help out on special teams until I can get where I really want to be to help this team win."
A standout during spring OTAs, Nixon's short-area quickness continues to shine and could intrigue the coaching staff as a slot player who also has the speed to get deep. On Friday morning, Bill Belichick praised Nixon's work ethic. "He's in the category of nobody works harder than he does," said Belichick. "He's one of the hardest workers on the team."
Wilkerson led the team in receptions and targets, as the third-year player showed continued development after two seasons spent as primarily a practice squad player. His 33-yard reception up the sideline demonstrated the growing number of downfield plays that the offense has been pushing this season.
"Something we work on constantly is, especially for those young guys, just teaching them how to get vertically into the defense, and when they do it you have to reward them and throw them the ball," said quarterback Brian Hoyer. "I know I underthrew the one to Tyquan [Thornton] a little bit, but came right back and hit K-Dub [Kristian Wilkerson], and obviously we continued to do it over the night. Tre [Nixon] obviously had some great catches, some back shoulders. Zappe threw some good balls. Look, in the preseason it usually ends up being man coverage, and you want to give those guys opportunities to see if they can make those plays."
Wilkerson showed the ability to quickly adjust to incoming passes, notably securing a bullet from Zappe on a second-quarter third-and-10 that got the first-down conversion.
The newest addition of the group is Lil'Jordan Humphrey, who has come on in recent practices with multiple catches, and those performances carried over into the game. Humphrey's impressive size might make him look more like a tight end than receiver, but it gives the former Saint a unique trait within the group.
His fourth-quarter touchdown was a notable demonstration of what he's capable of. With the Giants coming on a blitz, quarterback Bailey Zappe stared down the pressure and lobbed a quick pass up to Humphrey who managed to use his size and length to secure the catch and score.
"Yeah, we prepared all week for multiple pressures that the Giants were going to give us, and that was one of the occasions that we practiced for," said Zappe. "It came to fruition. We were able to score a touchdown, and [Lil'Jordan] made a great play, and the O-line blocked really well and was able to let me get the ball off, and it was an overall good play."
With four veteran receivers atop the depth chart along with a promising rookie in Tyquan Thornton, the trio of Wilkerson, Nixon and Humphrey still have a ways to go. But on Thursday night, all three made the most of their chances and showed how they might be able to add new elements to the Patriots attack.