For the umpteenth offseason in a row, many wondered what the New England Patriots would do to address the lack of depth at wide receiver. The leading receiver for the previous few seasons, Jakobi Meyers, was set to hit free agency. The team's offense was an unmitigated catastrophe mostly due to the ineptitude of Matt Patricia but the receiving room was one of the worst in the league. There was zero explosiveness and nobody other than Meyers was able to separate on a consistent basis. The crop of free agents was not particularly talented but there were myraid ways the Pats could've gone about getting Mac Jones better weapons.
Of course, we all know how it went. Bill Belichick, once again, decided things were fine and everyone else was blowing it out of proportion. He let Meyers walk, which in of itself wasn't the worst move. Meyers is a good player but tops out as a No. 2 receiver who can't stretch the defense and the Las Vegas Raiders gave him a lot of money. But Belichick replaced Meyers with JuJu Smith-Schuster, coming off a fine year in Kansas City that ended with a Super Bowl win and knee surgery. As a one-to-one substitute for Meyers it seemed like Belichick could do worse at the time. He was $8 million cheaper than Meyers and is much, much better after the catch.
After only one game, though, it would appear that Belichick has wasted his money yet again and blown another free agent signing at a skill position. Much like in 2020 when he gave an extraordinary sum to the dynamic duo of Nelson Agholor and Jonnu Smith, neither of whom are still with the team.
Smith-Schuster missed most of training camp recovering from his knee surgery, which should have been the first red flag. But precautionary measures are nothing to get too worked up about. Then the Patriots' first game of the year commenced. Smith-Schuster had four catches for 33 yards. An underwhelming debut. But that's not why alarm bells are ringing.
The statistic of much greater concern is that Smith-Schuster only played 54 percent of the offensive snaps in the game. He didn't step foot on the field during the final two minutes as the offense tried to drive down the field to take the lead. Kayshon Boutte, a sixth-round pick, played significantly more than Smith-Schuster. Demario Douglas, another sixth-rounder, was on the field for the team's most significant snaps in the two-minute drill while Smith-Schuster was not. The fact that Boutte, in particular, outsnapped the veteran wideout should be worrying given he cost the Patriots two catches (and potentially a win) by being unable to get two feet down.
In the immediate aftermath of the loss those snap count numbers could be brushed off as matchup-based. Smith-Schuster's lack of speed makes it easy for defensive backs to play aggressively and the Patriots were playing from behind for the entire contest so they needed more chunk plays through the air than he could give them. They also might've just been easing him back into things as he continues to recover from his knee injury. A lot of different reasons as to why he was on the bench for nearly half of the offensive snaps.
But the Boston Herald reports it's because the team does not view Smith-Schuster as one of their top receiving threats. In fact, they put him quite low on the depth chart. Per Andrew Callahan:
The problem is his increasingly shaky standing on the depth chart. Multiple team sources believe Smith-Schuster is not presently among the team’s five most effective pass-catchers. According to those same sources, his place in the offense has been complicated by a variety of factors.
Callahan goes on to explain that the combination of Smith-Schuster's health, the breakout play of the rookie wideouts, and his uncertain fit as a true X receiver make up those factors to muck up his fit in the unit.
This sort of thing happens in the NFL and the Patriots are in a pretty good spot if Smith-Schuster is getting pushed out because everyone is better than him. But that is not the sole reason he appears to be on the outside looking in. More relevantly, the fact that there are this many questions about the team's marquee offseason acquisition means Belichick has done it again.
And by "it" I mean he blew it. Again! The man is a defensive savant and obviously knows how to run a football team but struggles time and time again to correctly evaluate skill position players. It is a blind spot that has grown incredibly problematic ever since the departure of Tom Brady meant he couldn't sign the local Market Basket cashier and produce a league-average offense. Smith-Schuster seems well on his way to being the latest multi-million Belichick blunder.
A tough life for Mac Jones to live, even if it seems like the Pats got lucky with Douglas and Boutte.