The Patriots did not want to pay wide receiver Jakobi Meyers in the NFL offseason and, instead, let him walk to the Las Vegas Raiders on a three-year, $33 million contract. To replace him, New England went to the bargain bin for JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was also given a three-year contract, though his was worth $25 million.
While Meyers was putting up 9 catches for 81 yards, 2 touchdowns and a critical first down in a Las Vegas win, though, Smith-Schuster was hardly seen in his New England debut against the Philadelphia Eagles, especially when it mattered most. Smith-Schuster had 4 catches for 33 yards, but his most memorable moment during the September 10 game was a conspicuous dropped pass just past midfield, on a third-down play that would have yielded a first down just as the Patriots were trying to collect some momentum.
Smith-Schuster’s other memorable moment came late in the game as the Patriots were trying to finish a ferocious comeback. Smith-Schuster was not on the field, benched in favor of rookies Kayshon Boutte and Demario Douglas.
Coach Bill Belichick quickly attempted to squelch any controversy about the move. “We had different groups, different rotations, so we’re good with whoever is in there,” Belichick said.
Receiver ‘Rotations’ a Longshot
It’s plausible that the Patriots were simply rotating receivers and it so happened that the two rookies were scheduled to be on the field for the final possessions just because of timing.
But the Patriots scored a touchdown with 3:37 to play in the game, to make the score 25-20. On the Eagles’ first play after that, Jabrill Peppers decked quarterback Jalen Hurts and forced a fumble, giving New England the ball at the 41-yard line of Philadelphia, with ample time (3:20) to play.
The Patriots got it again with 1:48 to play after holding the Eagles on downs. That was when New England turned to the two rookie wideouts, gaining 27 yards on seven plays before failing to convert a fourth down.
It might not have been only a matter of benching Smith-Schuster; after all, Kendrick Bourne was not in there, either. But with the game on the line, if Smith-Schuster is truly your best player at the position, why not buck the usual rotation and force him in?
Ezekiel Elliott Facing Pats Disaster
Smith-Schuster was not the only veteran addition to disappoint in Week 1 for the Patriots. The Patriots, remember, brought in ex-Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott to complement Rhamondre Stevenson this season.
It did not go much better for Elliott in Week 1. He had 7 carries for 29 yards and caught 5 passes for just 14 yards. He also had a very important first-quarter fumble, a miscue that has, in the past, led Belichick to bench players outright. Elliott was not benched, though.
“It felt good,” Elliott said after the game. “I felt solid about the game. I just had the one play, the fumble, I just got to take care of the football. … I think definitely just, take care of the football. We had two turnovers on those first two drives, so that is the biggest takeaway from today.”