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There is an Increasingly High Level of Weirdness Involving the Patriots and Juju Smith-Schuster

Anthony Nesmith. Shutterstock Images.

It all started innocently enough. The Patriots lost Jakobi Meyers to free agency. It sucked, because he was a great success story. But we'd seen this kind of thing before from undrafted players they'd signed and developed, such as Malcolm Butler and JC Jackson. 

Then a few days later, they signed Juju Smith-Schuster, and it all made sense. To me at least. Despite Meyers' inspirational story, I felt we'd seen his ceiling, and Smith-Schuster's was much higher. 1,400 yards and a Pro Bowl berth in 2018 that no one would ever ask of Meyers. More relevantly, he was coming off a 900 yard season with Kansas City, including seven receptions and drawing a critical holding call to set up the game-winning field goal. 

Besides that, Smith-Schuster's deal with New England was slightly more team friendly. So a win all around. He seemed a lock to be the Patriots WR1. And certainly looked the part through most of training camp, where he never missed a session.

Then again there Albert Breer, who most Patriots fans will agree seems to have been seduced by the Dark Side of the Anti-Patriots Boston Media Force, calling his surgically-repaired knee "a ticking time bomb":

Smith-Schuster has denied the report. "If anything," he said a week later, "It's something that's getting stronger every day." 

And the way he ran against the Eagles certainly bolstered his claim. He caught four passes, including a big 1st down catch-and-run on a shallow cross underneath two vertical routes the cleared out the seam/flat defenders, leaving him undefended:

Yes, he had a drop on a 3rd down pass that was admittedly low, but he should've had. And ran a sloppy route on a 4th down attempt late in the game. Overall, one could easily say Smith-Schuster played well, but didn't make enough plays in high-leverage situations to win the game. Which is precisely what we can say about every Patriots player and the team as a whole, and leave it at that. 

But this is the Patriots. And it's never that simple. There's always something bubbling under the surface. Or, at the very least, the suggestion there is. Why should this situation be any different?

What seemed weird looking back at that game is the fact that Smith-Schuster was only third among Pats wideouts in terms of snaps. By a wide margin. Out of 80 total plays, Kendrick Bourne took 73 of them. Rookie Kayshon Boutte had 55. While Juju took only 43. This despite the fact DeVante Parker was out. Even if you chalk it up to the fact the Pats ran a lot of 2-tight end and 2-running back sets, it's curious that that he'd have so many fewer reps than a rookie who twice failed to get his feet in bounds on big time Mac Jones throws and finished with no receptions. And that he wasn't on the field for most of the final possessions. Instead he gave way to two guys appearing in their first NFL games, Boutte and Demario Douglas.

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Much of this has led to suggestions/rumors/whispers/innuendoes that Smith-Schuster's knee is really trash. But his lyrically delightful name hasn't been on the injury reports. Which Belichick has to keep as pure and accurate as his tax returns in a league that always out to get him.

Which leads us to this latest report:

Source - Patriots coaches have said all the right things about Smith-Schuster’s lack of playing time: he’s smart and works hard, he’s a good player and they feel positively about the two rookies who played over him. But they failed to directly explain why Smith-Schuster sat, which begs a larger question. 

Do the Patriots still believe he’s the receiver they signed six months ago for $25.5 million? …

In the words of Patriots receivers coach Ross Douglas, benching Smith-Schuster was a byproduct of that process.

“We just did what we thought was best to be able to move the ball and score points,” Douglas said Tuesday.

Which would be damning enough by itself. But it gets worse.

Multiple team sources believe Smith-Schuster is not presently among the team’s five most effective pass-catchers.

At the outset of training camp, Jones declared: "the big word for this training camp is 'trust.' ”

A month and a half later, it's clear Hunter Henry (six catches, 56 yards) has his trust. Parker and Bourne do, too. And Douglas and Boutte are close, as evidenced by their snaps in Sunday's two-minute drill, when Boutte earned two of Jones' final three targets.

"They’ve done a great job, just coming in as rookies, working really hard in the weight room, in the sprints and everything. So, they’re definitely dialed in on the details," Jones said Wednesday. 

As a general rule, I try not to lean too hard into parsing a guy's words. Because you can play that game all the time, without end. Whenever a coach or an athlete praises a teammate, it's not always a backhand to the face of somebody else. Sometimes you just want to say nice things about someone who's working hard. And if we're always assuming it means someone he didn't mention isn't? That way lies madness. 

But actions do matter. The fact the rookies were not only in the game in the 2:00 drill but were getting targeted speaks volumes about who is earning Jones' aforementioned trust and who isn't. And the fact that "multiple team sources" are pushing JJSS down to the bottom of the depth chart screams it into a megaphone. 

And just to up the volume to speakers-at-a-Metallica-show levels, here was Meyers' stat line from his first game with the Raiders;

10 Targets, 9 receptions, 81 yards, 2 TDs, 5 1st downs, 140.0 passer rating when targeted

Or what I'll term it, a career day. It's way, way too early to draw conclusions about Smith-Schuster, Meyers, the rookies or anyone in this. But the first impressions are not good. And this weird situation is going to bear watching.