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Sunday Patriots Notes: It is not time to worry about JuJu Smith-Schuster yet

Notes and thoughts on the Patriots and the NFL on Sept. 17.

New England Patriots v Green Bay Packers Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The second week of the 2023 regular season is upon us, and the New England Patriots are entering it off a loss. And while their Sunday night matchup with the visiting Miami Dolphins does not fall into the “must win” category just yet, being down two games in the division would put some early pressure on Bill Belichick and his team.

Of course, all our focus this week was on this particular game. For anything else we might not have covered just yet, let’s clean out the notebook. Welcome to the latest edition of our Sunday Patriots Notes.

1. It’s not time to worry about JuJu Smith-Schuster yet: When the Patriots attempted to cap off their comeback bid in Week 1 against the Philadelphia Eagles, JuJu Smith-Schuster watched from the sidelines. Despite being the team’s highest-paid wide receiver, he was not on the field for the ultimately unsuccessful final drive.

The big question after the game, naturally, was why. Might it have been injury? Performance? A combination of the two, or something else entirely?

The Patriots’ coaches pointed to the different packages the team used at various points in the game, but a follow-up report by the Boston Herald’s Andrew Callahan painted a more complicated picture:

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.

Start with health. ... His knee, flatly, is not 100%.

Smith-Schuster suffered a knee injury during last year’s playoffs, and the Patriots opted to take a cautious approach after signing him to a three-year, $25.5 million free agency pact in March. He was held out of offseason workouts, and only re-joined the team on the field by the start of training camp.

The 26-year-old quickly proved himself a starter-level member of the Patriots offense over the summer, but in crunch time on Sunday was not part of a package that included wide receivers Kendrick Bourne, Kayshon Boutte and Demario Douglas. If there are concerns about his knee, limiting his workload even in the first game of the regular season would make sense. In this particular situation is still raises some questions, though.

Another one raised by the Boston Herald was whether or not Smith-Schuster enjoys the same level of trust that other players on the offense had. To be fair, however, quarterback Mac Jones did give him plenty of opportunities: he was tied for second behind only Bourne with seven targets; Smith-Schuster caught four of those for 33 yards.

All that being said, what’s the concern level? So, is something wrong with Smith-Schuster? Is it time to start worrying about the high-prized free agent?

No, it is not. Not yet, at least.

The Patriots, after all, are always playing the long game. Having Smith-Schuster at close to 100 percent from a healthy, trust and snap-count perspective in September might be the ideal scenario, but the team has multiple options on the inside and can allow itself the luxury of using its players in a rotational fashion.

For now, the concern level is therefore relatively low. Time will obviously tell how Smith-Schuster will develop in New England, but from this perspective it is far too early into the season and his Patriots tenure as a whole to sound the alarm bells.

2. JuJu Smith-Schuster vows to be ready whenever his number is called: As for the man in question himself, he met with the media this week and seems content with his usage in the Patriots’ 25-20 loss to the Eagles.

“I’m not frustrated at all,” he said. “I’ve been in this league way too long. When the time has come, opportunities call for me, I’ll make my play.”

As far as his knee is concerned, Smith-Schuster expressed confidence.

“I think it’s 100 percent,” he said. “They’re working on it every day. It’s nice being here and finding a nice routine of getting stronger every single day to go out there and to perform.”

3. Mac Jones-Bill O’Brien combo trying to build a rhythm after promising season opener: Last week’s season opener versus the Eagles was the first opportunity for third-year quarterback Mac Jones and quasi first-year offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien to work extended snaps in a game setting. And while the Patriots did not pull out the victory, the pairing to lead the offense appears to be on a right track.

Most importantly — especially after last year’s debacle — they appear to be on the same track.

“I think Coach O’Brien does a great job every week just telling me what I need to get better at,” said Jones. “The communication is very open, so I know what I need to work on. We know what we need to work on together, and from there, we’re going to come up with a plan so that I play better in that situation. He’s calling great plays, called a great game last week in a tough situation, and this week, hopefully we can get into a rhythm.”

Building that rhythm would be good news for a Patriots offense that already looked much improved against Philadelphia. While Jones had some inaccuracies early on in the game, and a pair of turnovers hurt New England while leading to 13 Eagles points, the unit looked competitive and significantly more cohesive than last year’s.

The Jones-O’Brien combo has a lot to do with that.

“We spent a lot of time together in the meeting rooms and on the practice field, and that carries over,” said O’Brien. “The coach-to-quarterback communication was good. Bill [Belichick] allows us to do that in practice, so that’s really a big help when we’re able to do that in practice. And then between series, we do that between team periods in practice. So, it’s not like the first time we’ve ever done that; it’s probably hundreds of times that we’ve done that.

“So, we understand what we’re trying to do in the game and we communicate well together. I think that that process is good. It can always be better — it’ll be better.”

4. Ty Montgomery is ‘great to have,’ says Bill Belichick: After missing virtually all of 2022 because of a shoulder injury, and spending a few days on the practice squad after roster cutdowns in late August, Ty Montgomery is back on the Patriots’ active roster now. And that’s a definitive positive, according to head coach Bill Belichick.

“He’s great to have,” Belichick said about the hybrid running back/wide receiver this week. “A very versatile guy, really smart. He’s got a great skill set, plays in the kicking game, can do more things offensively. Missed most of training camp this year, all of the preseason games but has been able to get in a couple great weeks of work.

“I’m glad we have him back on the field to work with. He’s a talented guy that is really smart, has some experience and he’s able to do some of different things for us. It’s good to have that kind of versatility.”

In the season opener, Montgomery was on the field for seven offensive snaps. He carried the ball once for seven yards and gained nine yards on two receptions. In addition, he ran back a pair of kickoffs for a combined 62 yards — including a 43-yarder that was the longest kickoff in the NFL in Week 1.

5. The Patriots’ O-line shuffle is set to continue: The 2022 season was a challenge for the Patriots offensive line, with the unit using six different starting configurations through the year. It did start relatively stable, though, with the top five — Trent Brown, Cole Strange, David Andrews, Michael Onwenu and Isaiah Wynn — remaining intact for the first six games of the year.

That level of stability is one this year’s O-line can only dream of. On Sunday against the Dolphins, after all, it will likely use its second different starting five in as many weeks.

Not only is Michael Onwenu set to return after missing the season opener due to his ankle injury, the Patriots also might be getting Cole Strange back from a knee issue. Left tackle Trent Brown, on the other hand, missed the entire week of practice while in concussion protocol; his status for the game against the Dolphins remains TBD.

6. Mike Gesicki has few beans to spill: Despite having spent the first five years of his career in Miami, first-year Patriots tight end Mike Gesicki said this week that he has little insight to offer when it comes to attacking the Dolphins defense.

“Not a whole lot to share, honestly,” he said. “It’s a whole new coordinator on the defensive side of the ball. Obviously, there’s some personnel things that are the same, but for the most part a lot of it is new.”

What Gesicki did not mention, meanwhile, was whether or not he had been helping the Patriots defense prepare for an offense that has the same core personnel in place it had during the 2022 season. That said, any pointers would probably be of the minor variety on this side of the ball as well.

7. Ja’Whaun Bentley is the tone-setter for the Patriots defense. New England’s defense lost some of its cornerstone members the last few years, with Devin McCourty the latest to leave. The long-time starting safety announced his retirement earlier this year, leaving a massive void on that side of the ball.

Linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley took it upon himself to fill it. While not the only leader on that side of the ball — lineman Deatrich Wise Jr., for example, has also been named a captain — the sixth-year man is the spiritual successor to McCourty.

“I feel like a couple of years ago when I first got here, he would defer to older guys, especially Dev,” said linebacker Matthew Judon this week. “Dev would break us down. Dev would always talk. Dev would lead. And I think with the departure of Dev and [Dont’a] Hightower and a couple of other guys, that he’s seen and he’s waited his turn. He learned from some great leaders, and he’s becoming one of those guys that are going to be on a wall around here some day very soon.”

Whether or not Bentley will be a candidate for the Patriots Hall of Fame one day remains to be seen. What cannot be denied is that he is a valuable member of the unit right now, and leading it into the post-McCourty era through his presence off and on the field.

As far as the latter is concerned, Judon thinks that Bentley is vastly underrated.

“He does a lot of things that stats [don’t show],” the Pro Bowler said. “If you watch him, the way he’s physical at the line of scrimmage and punishes offensive linemen, or the way he re-routes people, or the way he gets our defense lined up, set, talking with the green dot — that’s a lot of responsibility on a guy that’s not talked about a lot. We talk about him and we praise him, but I think outside of these walls, he’s not given the respect he should be given.

“And so, I think Bent just wears that chip on his shoulder. Every game, down in, down out, he goes out there and busts his butt. Whether that’s on special teams, whether that’s on defense, any phase of the game that he’s needed. And then when he does talk, we listen. We focus in, we zone in. We’re not taking our tape off. We’re not thinking like, ‘Oh, it’s hot out here.’ We are actually listening to the words he saying, because he inspires, he encourages us.”

8. New England might have more practice squad spots available in 2024: The NFL announced this week that it would increase practice squad sizes from 2024 forward. If a team carries a player qualifying for international status, it would be given 17 instead of currently 16 spots on the developmental roster.

The Patriots, in the past, have had multiple players that either have, or would have, qualified for international status such as offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer and fullback Jakob Johnson.

9. Patriots players share their opinion on the grass vs. artificial turf debate: With New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 1, the great playing surface debate was started anew. Backed by the NFLPA, players started to once again call for grass to replace artificial turf.

Among those making the plea was Patriots safety Jabrill Peppers.

“We’ve been trying to do that for 3-4 years now, man,” Peppers told Khari Thompson of “…There’s no real incentive to change. There are players everywhere who are willing to play. You could tell them to play in the parking lot, I’m one of those guys too, and they would want to sit there and do that.

“Do I hope it changes? Yes. Do I think it will? No. Do I care either way? No. Whatever is God’s plan, is God’s plan. I’m just going to go out there and play hard and fast on whatever surface we’re playing on and put it in God’s hands.”

10. Setting up the week ahead: The Patriots will host the Dolphins on Sunday for a 8:20 p.m. ET kickoff at Gillette Stadium. They will then start preparation for yet another division rival: Week 3 will see them go up against the Jets, who, in light of Aaron Rodgers’ Achilles injury, will again be led by third-year QB Zach Wilson.

The Patriots will return to practice on Wednesday, and release their first injury report of the week later that same day. Two more will be released on Thursday and Friday. Saturday will be a walkthrough and see potential practice squad elevations.

The players elevated for this week — wide receiver Jalen Reagor and linebacker Calvin Munson — will revert back automatically on Monday.