On the New England Patriots' final drive with their season opener on the line, their supposed No. 1 wide receiver was nowhere to be found.
JuJu Smith-Schuster didn't play a single snap on New England's last offensive possession Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, watching from the sideline as a pair of sixth-round rookies, Demario Douglas and Kayshon Boutte, lined up alongside veteran wideout Kendrick Bourne. The final result wasn't pretty, as Boutte failed to get both feet inbounds on a fourth-down pass from Mac Jones that sealed the Patriots' 25-20 loss.
So, why wasn't New England's top signing of the offseason on the field in the game's critical moments? And why did he play 54 percent of the Patriots' offensive snaps, fewer than every Patriots receiver outside Douglas?
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While Smith-Schuster entered the season with injury concerns, head coach Bill Belichick insisted his limited playing time wasn't due to health or conditioning.
"We had different groups, different rotations,” Belichick said after Sunday's game when asked about Smith-Schuster's absence on the final drive. “So, we’re good with whoever is in there."
According to the Boston Herald's Doug Kyed, Smith-Schuster's lack of playing time was partially personnel-related: The 26-year-old "doesn’t play the X-receiver role that was left vacant when DeVante Parker (knee) was ruled inactive," so Boutte "essentially served as a 1-for-1 swap for Parker," Kyed wrote Monday.
That's a fair explanation, but it's not a exactly a great sign for Smith-Schuster.
"The fact that he's not out there, to me, is, is an indication of how the coaching staff views him," our Phil Perry noted Monday on NBC Sports Boston's Arbella Early Edition, as seen in the video player above. "Because it sounds like the explanation in the locker room after the game was, 'Well, they had a different package out there for the two minute-drill.'
"That's a big deal. If you're a receiver and you are one of the best on your team, you need to be on the field for the two-minute drill or third down. Those are situations that they should be using you. So, that's alarming to me."
Smith-Schuster still managed four catches for 33 yards in Week 1, and perhaps he'll see an expanded role in future weeks if Parker returns to the lineup. Still, it was hard not to notice that while Smith-Schuster saw limited snaps, ex-Patriots receiver Jakobi Meyers -- who signed a very similar three-year contract with the Raiders this offseason -- went off in his Las Vegas debut, racking up nine catches for 81 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Raiders' win.
It's much too early to say the Patriots made the wrong decision by essentially swapping Meyers for Smith-Schuster. The former Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers star still has plenty of time to prove his worth in New England. But at the very least, his playing time and production are worth monitoring in the Patriots' Week 2 matchup with the Miami Dolphins.