Patriots risers and fallers: Mac Jones trending up after Week 1, JuJu Smith-Schuster down


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Monday morning, Bill Belichick was still thinking about the miscues and missteps that resulted in the New England Patriots falling short of a comeback win the afternoon before — even after a night to sleep on their 25-20 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

He wished he would’ve punted on fourth-and-17 in the fourth quarter, but didn’t regret going for it on fourth-and-3, pleased he didn’t opt for a field goal try. He wished a few things had gone just slightly differently.

“There were positives in the game that we have to build on,” Belichick said. “But in the end, any of us could have helped a little bit more, and it might have made a difference.”

The longtime coach often says that he looks at the first few games as an extension of the preseason, a chance for players to cement their roles.

So after a day to re-examine the game, let’s look at the players who most helped their case going forward as well as the ones who struggled under the regular-season spotlight.


Hunter Henry, TE

On a day when the Patriots wide receivers struggled to consistently get open and catch passes, Henry was Mac Jones’ most reliable target. He caught five of his six targets for 56 yards.

Most important, however, was how crucial some of those catches were. On second-and-goal, with the Patriots badly needing a score in the second quarter, Jones looked to Henry who came down with an impressive touchdown reception.

Then, in the fourth quarter, Jones turned to Henry on an important fourth-and-8. Jones’ pass was off the mark, clearly too high and in front of Henry. Thrown to maybe anyone else on the team, the pass might’ve fallen incomplete. Instead, Henry pulled down an incredible one-handed catch in a big spot.

Christian Gonzalez, CB

Gonzalez’s NFL debut yielded a brutal matchup. The Patriots played without Jack Jones, leaving Gonzalez no rest on a day he played every defensive snap. New England also was up against one of the league’s best receiving duos in A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith.

Yet Gonzalez, the Patriots’ first-round pick, still turned in a great performance, notching a sack and seven tackles (second-most on the team). He was also good in coverage.

Gonzalez was knocked in the pre-draft process for his willingness and ability to tackle in the running game, but that wasn’t an issue against the Eagles. He has room to grow in zone coverage, but on the whole, it was a very positive debut for the rookie.

The pass blocking

Perhaps I’m grading this on a curve, but the Patriots offensive line had every reason to play horribly Sunday. The unit was without three starters, as Cole Strange, Mike Onwenu and Riley Reiff all missed the game, and was forced to start two rookies in Atonio Mafi and Sidy Sow.

And yet the front five was totally fine in pass protection. Mac Jones was pressured on 31 percent of his dropbacks, which was slightly better than the league average for Week 1. The fact that the Pats got average pass blocking from that group against the Eagles is an absolute win.

It’s fair to note that the coaching staff made adjustments to help the line, switching to shotgun formations and quick passes. But, for the most part, the O-line did fine at protecting the quarterback.

Jabrill Peppers, S

The veteran safety played well for the Patriots last year but didn’t get as much playing time as he would’ve liked, stuck at the bottom of a deep group of safeties. But after Devin McCourty’s retirement, Peppers seems in line for an increased workload, especially if he keeps playing the way he did Sunday.

Peppers played 88 percent of the defensive snaps and made the biggest play of the day for the defense, dislodging the ball from Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts in the fourth quarter to give the offense a chance to win the game.

“Last year, it was unfortunate that we couldn’t get him on the field as much,” edge Matthew Judon said. “Last year, we were kind of in the same situation, and he told me, ‘Go out there and make a play.’ Today, I told him that, and on first down, he got us the ball back. That’s what we needed, and I think we’re going to see a lot more of those types of plays from him: big hit, big spot. It was just a good play by a great player.”

Mac Jones, QB

My initial feeling after the game was that I wouldn’t have included Jones here. While he threw for 316 yards, it came on 54 passes — an average of 5.9 yards per attempt, which isn’t good. Plus the pick six was mostly on him for throwing too high to receiver Kendrick Bourne.

But after rewatching the game, I came away impressed by how Jones handled a young offensive line and dealt with three important drops from his receivers. He was credited with four “big-time throws” by Pro Football Focus, the third-highest total of any quarterback in Week 1. There’s a lot to build on entering next week.


NFL Week 1 takeaways: Brock Purdy is fine, the Bears are not and standout players


The run blocking

We gave the offensive line props for the way it protected Jones despite injuries to the group. But the line wasn’t as effective in the running game, which forced the Patriots to become largely one-dimensional in the second half. Rhamondre Stevenson totaled only 25 rushing yards on 12 carries, and 14 of those yards came after contract. Ezekiel Elliott had 29 yards on seven carries, 9 of which came after contact. So the run blocking needs to get better (and it should when Strange and Onwenu are healthy).

JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR

This one is the most concerning. The Patriots made Smith-Schuster their big free-agent signing of the offseason. They chose him over fellow free-agent receiver Jakobi Meyers (who — oh, by the way — had two touchdowns in his Raiders debut) and gave him a lot more money.

But Smith-Schuster hasn’t looked like a No. 1 receiver since arriving in town. His training camp was just OK. And then his debut was such a mixed bag that Patriots coaches left him on the sideline during their final fourth-quarter drive, choosing instead to play rookies Demario Douglas and Kayshon Boutte. The veteran wide receiver needs a bounce-back game against the Dolphins next weekend.

Kayshon Boutte, WR

You could argue it’s unfair to call Boutte a faller since it’s impressive that he was even on the field instead of Smith-Schuster for the final drive and that coaches gave him the second-most snaps of any wide receiver (largely because DeVante Parker was out). And you could argue it’s impressive that Boutte got open enough for a target on the game’s most important play when the Pats needed to convert on fourth-and-11 with a chance to win the game.

Those would be fair points. But Boutte failed to get both feet in bounds on that final offensive play (the second time that happened in the game), and he finished with zero catches on four targets. The Pats need Parker to get healthy so Boutte can continue to develop without having to play 50-plus snaps.



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(Photo of Hunter Henry, Mike Gesicki and JuJu Smith-Schuster: Adam Glanzman / Getty Images)

The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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