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The Patriots bolstered their receiving corps on Wednesday, as New England reportedly signed wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster to a three-year contract.
The 26-year-old receiver stands as a likely replacement for Jakobi Meyers, with Smith-Schuster carving out a dependable role as a slot option for Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs last season.
Here are five things to know about New England’s latest free-agent pickup:
Smith-Schuster’s overall resume during his six-year NFL career is impressive, with the 2017 second-round pick putting up some lofty numbers during his first few seasons in Pittsburgh.
Forming a two-headed monster with Antonio Brown on the Steelers’ offense, Smith-Schuster hauled in 169 catches over his first two pro seasons. He earned Pro Bowl honors at just 22 years old in 2018, accumulating 1,426 yards and scoring seven touchdowns.
He scored nine touchdowns and snagged another 97 catches during the 2020 season, but Smith-Schuster was limited to just five games the following year due to shoulder issues.
Smith-Schuster’s career appeared to be at a crossroads, with the talented receiver eventually signing a one-year, “prove-it’ deal with the Chiefs in free agency last March.
Joining an offense conducted by Mahomes was the right move for Smith-Schuster. The versatile WR became a trusted option behind Travis Kelce in Kansas City’s offense, ranking second on the team in targets (101), receptions (78), and receiving yards (933).
During the Chiefs’ run to a title, Smith-Schuster hauled in 10 catches over three playoff games. He led Kansas City in receptions (seven) while racking up 53 yards during their win over the Eagles in Super Bowl LVII last month.
Given his strong first season in Kansas City, the Chiefs reportedly tried to retain Smith-Schuster this offseason. But New England eventually won the bidding war.
“This really, all day today and really last night, was about the Patriots versus the Kansas City Chiefs,” NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport said Wednesday. “I know he wanted to return to Kansas City. That’s kind of where his heart was. The Patriots pulled at him, too.
“They offered more money. That helps, plus the opportunity to kind of remake himself and rework himself and essentially start a new legacy. The opportunity to go to New England? There’s a lot to like here.”
Given his crisp route-running, dependable hands, and solid frame (6-foot-1, 215 pounds), Smith-Schuster fits the mold of a “big slot” receiver in New England’s offense.
With that skillset, it’s only natural to project Smith-Schuster as the successor to the role that Meyers thrived in over the last four seasons in New England.
That sentiment is further validated when comparing both receivers’ contracts with their new clubs.
According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Smith-Schuster’s new deal with New England is a three-year, $33 million contract, with $22.5 million earned over the first two years.
As far as term and annual payout, Smith-Schuster’s deal is nearly identical to the three-year, $33 million contract that Meyers reportedly signed with the Raiders just a day earlier.
At first glance, both Meyers and Smith-Schuster present very similar profiles, especially on the stat sheet.
Even though Smith-Schuster has been in the NFL for two more seasons, he’s actually 13 days younger than the former Pats stalwart.
Last season, Meyers averaged 4.8 catches and 57.4 yards per game with the Patriots. Smith-Schuster averaged 4.9 catches and 58.3 yards in Kansas City.
So why did the Patriots opt for outside help with Smith-Schuster, when they had a proven commodity in Meyers?
It’s unclear, but the similarity of the deals apparently rubbed Meyers the wrong way as he took to social media shortly after Smith-Schuster’s deal was reported.
Yes, Smith-Schuster and Meyers’ basic stat lines are hard to discern from one another.
But the reason why Bill Belichick and his staff likely opted for Smith-Schuster is due to his higher upside as a dynamic playmaker.
Even though both receivers have the natural acceleration and hands to burn defenses out of the slot, Smith-Schuster’s physicality and stop-and-start burst allowed him to turn simple five or six-yard pickups into first downs with Kansas City.
According to Pro Football Reference, Smith-Schuster averaged a career-high 6.0 yards after catch (YAC) per reception last season. That ranked fifth among NFL receivers with at least 50 receptions.
Meyers averaged just 3.5 YAC per reception last season, which ranked 32nd among that same pool of wideouts.
As noted by NFL Next Gen Stats, Smith-Schuster gained +141 yards after the catch over expected in 2022, which also ranked as the fifth-most among recievers.
The four players in front of Smith-Schuster in that category? Jaylen Waddle (+212 yards), A.J. Brown (+174), Ja’Marr Chase (+149), and Deebo Samuel (+145).
That’s pretty good company to be in.
Smith-Schuster’s versatility should give Bill O’Brien an added wrinkle as he looks to jumpstart New England’s offense with more big-play capability.
Even though Smith-Schuster did plenty of damage out of the slot last season, he has the ability to torch teams on the outside as an “X” receiver when needed.
As noted by Patriots.com’s Evan Lazar, Smith-Schuster actually ran 60 percent of his routes on the outside with Kansas City, catching 49 passes for 544 yards on the boundary. He ended up catching seven passes off of 15 “contested” targets with the Chiefs.
If New England plans on orchestrating a resurgent season on offense, Smith-Schuster may not be a No. 1 option for Mac Jones. But the new free-agent pickup does plenty of the little things that can help the Patriots march down the field and rack up points.
Ever since he first stormed onto the scene in Pittsburgh, Smith-Schuster has had a regular supporter in Bill Belichick.
The Patriots’ head coach has never been one to withhold praise for top talents across the NFL, such as when he compared potential New England target DeAndre Hopkins to Hall of Famer Cris Carter last season.
And after a rookie Smith-Schuster torched New England for 114 yards in a 27-24 Patriots win back in 2017, Belichick had plenty of high marks for the youngster ahead of their rematch the following season.
“Yeah, you’re not going to get anybody better than these two guys, plus the quarterback,” Belichick said of Smith-Schuster, Brown, and Ben Roethlisberger back in December 2018. “They’ve got a lot of other guys, too, but I mean, these two receivers are elite — elite, elite.“
After that 2018 showdown at Heinz Field, Smith-Schuster noted on Twitter that Belichick offered him words of encouragement after the Steelers’ 17-10 win.
Now, speaking of social media…
Belichick might be a big fan of Smith-Schuster’s on-field production.
But given the head coach’s previous thoughts on “SnapFace” and “InstaChat”, it’ll be curious to see how he deals with a social-media maven like Smith-Schuster.
A frequent poster on both Twitter and TikTok, Smith-Schuster has a knack for drawing attention away from the gridiron — such as when he led an online search for his stolen bike in 2017.
Smith-Schuster found himself in hot water last month after trolling Eagles cornerback James Bradberry with a Valentine’s Day card on Twitter.
The card, which features a picture of Bradberry, read: “I’ll hold you when it matters most.”
The dig references Bradberry’s costly holding call against Smith-Schuster in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LVII, which led to a game-winning kick from Harrison Butker just minutes later.
That tweet didn’t sit well with Eagles receiver A.J. Brown, who promptly roasted Smith-Schuster on Twitter.
The Patriots are no stranger to bringing in players with active social media accounts.
Matthew Judon is currently leading his offseason recruiting efforts on Twitter, while Martellus Bennett was a regular source of entertainment during his stint in New England.
With a home matchup against the Eagles marked on New England’s schedule in 2023, it should make for great theater when Smith-Schuster battles against Bradberry once again.
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