Risk, reward of switching wideouts
JuJu Smith-Schuster reaching terms with the Patriots on a free-agent contract Wednesday was no surprise.
The Patriots need receivers. Smith-Schuster was the best available. Supply met demand, and Smith-Schuster became a Patriot.
The surprise came moments later, when the financial details were first leaked: three years for $33 million, the same structure Jakobi Meyers agreed to in Las Vegas.
In essence, the Patriots chose Smith-Schuster over Meyers, their leading receiver the past three seasons and the best of their in-house free agents. After re-signing seven of said free agents and tendering two fringe backups, the Patriots made Meyers the exception to their run-it-back approach to free agency.
Why? What does SmithSchuster, another 6-foot-2 slot receiver entering his age-27 season, offer that Meyers doesn’t?
For starters, he’s proven to have a higher ceiling. While Meyers has never cracked 900 receiving yards in a season, Smith-Schuster reached 111 catches for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns in his second year. Granted, that was in 2018, back when Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski called Foxboro home.
Much has changed. For Smith-Schuster, change over the last five years included a recent move to Kansas City after he wore out his welcome with the Steelers. Last offseason, the Chiefs offered him an incentive-laded one-year contract, which he used as a springboard to his new deal with the Patriots. Smith-Schuster finished as Kansas City’s second-leading receiver with 78 catches for 933 yards and three touchdowns in the regular season, then snatched a team-high seven grabs in Super Bowl LVII.
By the numbers, SmithSchuster’s stock is the highest it’s been since 2018. The Patriots are buying high. They are also betting Kansas City’s environment, the NFL’s friendliest for receivers who play under a future Hall of Fame coach Andy Reid and catch passes from the league’s best quarterback in Patrick Mahomes, didn’t prop up his production.
Two years ago, the Pats made a similar bet with Nelson Agholor, who signed a two-year, $22 million deal in free agency. Back then, a 27-year-old Agholor was coming off a similar career renaissance in Las Vegas, where the Raiders unleashed him as a pure, outside deep threat under an offensive head coach in Jon Gruden and strong deep ball thrower in Derek Carr. Months later in New England, playing within a short passing offense designed to exploit the middle of the field, his production and stock crashed.
Agholor’s contract stands as one of the Patriots’ most regrettable deals under Bill Belichick. Of course, there are differences between Agholor’s case and SmithSchuster, starting with the fact a $11 million per year contract absorbs much less of the NFL’s salary cap than it did two years ago. There’s less financial risk.
Smith-Schuster also projects as a smoother fit in the Patriots offense as a big slot receiver. His numbers over the middle of the field were near identical to Meyers’ last season: 9.7 yards per target to 9.6
with catch rates of 73.8% and 77.8%, respectively, per Sports Info. Solutions. They also performed similarly on in-breaking routes, though, according to Yahoo Sports, Smith-Schuster produced a slightly lower success rate on those routes — slants, curls, digs and posts — than Meyers did.
Where Smith-Schuster truly shines is facing zone coverage, against which he averaged 2.22 yards per route run, a top-10 mark in the league, per Pro Football Focus. Working against zone allows the 215-pounder to navigate open space and maximize his yards after catch, a strength of his game. Last season, SmithSchuster averaged 5.9 yards after the catch, another top-10 figure in the league, while Meyers averaged 3.5.
He also broke eight tackles to Meyers’ two, per PFF.
If the Patriots wanted a more dynamic receiving corps, Smith-Schuster gives them that. He brings a dimension no other receiver — except maybe Kendrick Bourne — can. Like a quarterback extending a wellcovered play, he can create offense on his own; an ability Meyers doesn’t possess.
Simply get Smith-Schuster into space, and let him take care of the rest.
There are causes for concern, though. Smith-Schuster’s best seasons — 2017, 2018 and 2022 — all came while he worked opposite a four-time All-Pro: Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh and Travis Kelce in Kansas City. His years as the Steelers’ No. 1 option were all underwhelming, and all indications are he’ll be the Patriots’ go-to guy.
Smith-Schuster also doesn’t solve a problem the Pats offense has faced dating back to the end of the Brady era: beating man coverage. For as unthreatening Meyers might be as a raw athlete, he’s sudden and a technician with his routes. That combination earned him a top-20 grade versus man coverage last year at PFF, whereas Smith-Schuster graded below average, posting a yards-per-routerun average 31% lower than Meyers’.
For years, opposing defenses have dared the Patriots to beat them 1-on-1, and quietly Meyers did, occasionally against elite corners. All the while, Meyers didn’t care about targets.
But now, what happens if Smith-Schuster doesn’t see his expected volume as the new No. 1 receiver? Or if he doesn’t produce against elite corners, like Tre’Davious White in Buffalo, Miami’s Jalen Ramsey and Xavien Howard or the Jets’ Sauce Gardner? Who knows, maybe nothing.
But the Patriots knew Meyers’ answer and everything else about him, and chose to pivot anyway. They’re paying his successor roughly the same money after he enjoyed similar production working within the most receiver-friendly offense in the NFL.
League sources speculate concern over the health of Meyers’ left knee may have factored into the team’s decision. Meyers played through a small tear in the knee last year, missing games in September and October. He finished as the Pats’ leading receiver anyway.
In the Patriots’ most trying season, he gave the offense a lifeline and raised their floor. What the Pats want now, however, is to change their ceiling; even if it means taking a risk with a boom-or-bust replacement that, as it stands now, they unequivocally need to boom.