The news on Julian Edelman got a little brighter Friday when coach Bill Belichick gave a positive prognosis for the Patriots most productive receiver.
“We’ll see how the return goes,” Belichick said. “I mean, I don’t think it is a season-ending situation. But we’ll see. I’m not a doctor. We’ll see how it goes here. Hopefully he’ll be back. I know he’s worked awfully hard and nobody is more competitive than Julian is. So, he’ll do everything he can to be back out there and we’ll just take it day by day in the process and see how it goes.”
Edelman, who had a knee procedure Thursday and will miss Sunday’s game, according to an NFL source, could land on injured reserve, which would allow him to return for the Nov. 22 game in Houston. Wide receiver N’Keal Harry also has been ruled out Sunday with a concussion.
So, who takes Edelman’s spot in the lineup?
The Patriots have slot options, with Gunner Olszewski and practice squaders Isaiah Zuber, Mason Kinsey, and Kristian Wilkerson.
Olszewski, who is the club’s top return man, has limited receiving experience — he was a college cornerback, remember — and has just one catch for 11 yards this season.
Zuber is another top candidate given his experience as a college receiver and in the Patriots' system — he’s been with the club throughout camp. He’s already been elevated to the game day roster three times and it would be a surprise if he didn’t get the nod again this weekend.
The 6-foot, 190-pounder, who has one catch for 16 yards and a pair of jet-sweep rushes for 21 yards, beat out a pair of other undrafted slot campers — Will Hastings and Jeff Thomas — to win a practice squad spot.
Zuber quickly became a favorite of his teammates during the summer with loud chants of “Zoooobs” ringing out whenever he would make a play.
“He’s been good. He’s bought in. He’s learning. He’s improving. You can see it week after week,” cornerback Jonathan Jones said Friday. “He’s in here working hard day after day. For young guys, that’s all you ask, for someone to come in and try to get better and not make the same mistakes and just continue to develop their game. I’d definitely say he’s on the right path.”
Zuber slipped the through the draft cracks after a nondescript season at Mississippi State, where he transferred for his final season and had just 14 catches for 211 yards.
During his three seasons at Kansas State, Zuber left impressions, catching 127 balls for 1,321 yards and 11 touchdowns. Zuber was a special teams demon for the Wildcats. He returned 10 punts for 178 yards and a score, and had 33 kickoff returns for 513 yards in his college career.
“Zuber’s got good skill, got good size, runs well, catches well,” said Belichick. “He’s made some plays with the ball in his hands.”
Kinsey played at Division 3 Berry College, where he put up video game numbers, catching 203 passes for 3,343 yards, and 50 TDs. He was the only Division 3 player invited to the East-West Shrine Game, where he had a pair of catches.
Without the benefit of seeing Kinsey in a full practice, it is hard to get a feel for his development, however watching him in limited individual drills, it’s clear he has the skills teams covet when looking for slot guys.
The 5-10, 198-pound Kinsey is quick and explosive in and out of his cuts. He impressed in his summer camp work with the Titans with his soft hands and competitiveness after the catch.
Wilkerson is another guy who turned some heads with the Titans this summer with his excellent hands and speed. Wilkerson, who appears bigger than his listed 6-1, 214 pounds, is a strong fighter when it comes to contested balls.
He piled up school records of 3,540 receiving yards and 33 TDs at Southeast Missouri State, where he ran a 4.46 at his Pro Day, which would have tied him for 13th among wide receivers at the Combine.
Belichick said Kinsey and Wilkerson are steadily improving, and Jones agreed.
“Kristian competes,” said Jones. “Every day, every week he’s out there he’s going to compete. He does a good job of going and getting balls. And Mason the same. He’s out there working hard and improving every day. Those guys are doing whatever coaches ask them to do and they go after it. They work hard. You definitely see improvement since they’ve been here, and they continue to get better.”