For a team that’s just kicked off their new season, the New England Patriots seem to be up to their chinstrap in questions and injuries already. They dropped their home opener, a game they could have won multiple times, had miscues and questionable coaching decisions not gotten the best of them. Four-fifths of their starting offensive line has shown up on the Week Two injury report. And to top it all off, questions and concerns are floating freely as to the health and effectiveness of their biggest offseason offensive acquisition.
Insert “Not great, Bob.” meme.
While we can’t fix the past, nor predict the future as to the health of our starting five of Sunday’s offensive line against the Miami Dolphins, we can step back and ask a blunt question about the man many presumed to be the team’s new number one wide receiver:
What the heck is going on with JuJu Smith-Schuster?
In Sunday’s home defeat to the Eagles, Smith-Schuster played in only 54% of New England’s offensive snaps, well below his career usage rate. He logged four catches for 33 yards and wasn’t much of a factor otherwise. Of note, he had six catches for 79 yards in his 2022 debut with the Kansas City Chiefs, with one fumble lost.
Most notable though, was his absence on the final drive, the “gotta have it” drive where sixth-round rookie Kayshon Boutte was on the field. The drive ended with Boutte making a fourth down catch and not being able to get both feet inbounds.
It seemed like the kind of drive where you’d want a player of Smith-Schuster’s experience and championship pedigree on the field.
Whether or not Smith-Schuster is managing a nagging injury has been a topic for weeks. SI’s Albert Breer recently reported that Smith-Schuster’s surgically repaired knee, which he injured in January’s AFC Championship game vs. Cincinnati, was a bigger problem than he was letting on. Bill Belichick had to field questions as to Smith-Schuster’s health this week, deferring to the injury report in response. Belichick 101, of course.
For the record, Smith-Schuster did not appear on this week’s report, yet a strange sense of doubt seems to linger behind the scenes, amplified by a report in Thursday’s Boston Herald from Andrew Callahan, where multiple team sources express concern over the wide receiver’s effectiveness.
“Multiple team sources believe Smith-Schuster is not presently among the team’s five most effective pass-catchers,” Callahan wrote. “According to those same sources, his place in the offense has been complicated by a variety of factors.”
Add all this to the debut of the receiver the Patriots eschewed in favor of Smith-Schuster, Jakobi Meyers, with his new team, the Las Vegas Raiders (9 catches, 81 yards, two TDs last Sunday), and there seems to be reasonably firm ground to stand on when wondering why Meyers was set free, why the Pats favored Smith-Schuster over him, and what exactly is going on with the seven-year veteran.
Yes, it’s early in the season, and Smith-Schuster, who signed to a three-year $25.5 million deal this offseason, could still be getting up to speed in a new offense under Bill O’Brien. But the slow start, game one usage, and the swirl of recent reports leave you wondering if there’s more to the story, or non-story as he and the injury report would have you believe.
JuJu’s role on the team and in the passing game remains to be seen. Maybe he balls out this Sunday against the Dolphins and silences the doubters. Mac may need people like JuJu to get open quicker than last Sunday considering the health of the line.
Should he again register a lower-than-expected snap count, not be a major factor in the passing game, and even be absent from the field during crunch time? More questions will be asked and more noise will be made that Smith-Schuster and his coaches will have to figure out a way to ignore quickly.