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NFL free agency 2023: What signing wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster means for the Patriots

New England is adding the 26-year-old on a three-year contract.

Las Vegas Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The New England Patriots had a seemingly slow start into free agency week, but they sure made a bang on Wednesday. Picking up one of the top wide receivers on the market, they signed JuJu Smith-Schuster to a reported three-year, $33 million contract.

A former second-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers who spent 2022 with the Kansas City Chiefs, Smith-Schuster offers plenty of experience and an intriguing skillset. What exactly does the move mean for the Patriots, though? Let’s find out.

Smith-Schuster adds a dynamic presence to the Patriots offense. Smith-Schuster is not unlike former Patriot Jakobi Meyers, who left to sign with the Las Vegas Raiders on Tuesday. He is primarily an interior receiver, but has seen plenty of action on the outside of the formation as well. Like Meyers, he should be able to align both in the slot and at the Z-receiver position in the New England offense.

One difference between the two wideouts is Smith-Schuster’s ability to consistently create yards after the catch. In fact, per NFL Next Gen Stats, he earned 141 yards above expectation in 2022 — the fifth-highest number in the league. The Patriots’ receiving corps combined, for comparison, gained just 33 yards above expectation last season.

Needless to say that adding Smith-Schuster to the equation should help get that number up.

As for Smith-Schuster and Meyers, they were not in the same region when it comes to gaining yards with the ball in their hands: the newest Patriot ranked ninth in the league with an average of 5.8 YAC per reception; the former Patriot, for comparison, ranked just 46th with 3.6.

While Jakobi Meyers was a proven commodity, Smith-Schuster appears to have bigger upside in the system the Patriots want to run.

New England is valuing Smith-Schuster differently than Jakobi Meyers. As can be seen above, the Patriots gave Smith-Schuster the same basic contract Jakobi Meyers signed with the Raiders: both put their signature under three-year deals at a total value of $33 million. Obviously, the contract structure will tell the full story, but it appears New England is in fact valuing Smith-Schuster differently than Meyers.

The Patriots, after all, were not willing to give their former wideout a contract in that ballpark, prompting him to leave for Las Vegas. Smith-Schuster, meanwhile, was acquired despite Kansas City also wanting him back — the Patriots simply outbid his former team, according to a report by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.

Every player’s situation and market is different, but from the information available it appears New England simply saw Smith-Schuster as better value.

The wide receiver room is better, but still needs work. Adding Smith-Schuster to the equation improves the Patriots’ wide receiver depth quite a bit, with four players now under contract who could be realistic contributors in 2023.

DeVante Parker projects as the No. 1 option on the outside, with sophomore Tyquan Thornton also projected to contribute. On the interior, meanwhile, Smith-Schuster joins Kendrick Bourne as the one-two punch.

Bourne is, of course, coming off a down year, but he did look very good during the 2021 season. If he can return to those levels of play under new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, and with Smith-Schuster now also part of the group, the Patriots should see some improved production across the board.

That said, New England could still benefit from some upgrades. The outside in particular could see better production, and given his contract status and injury history Parker also is no lock to make the team.

The Patriots’ compensatory draft picks formula will be negatively impacted. After losing Jakobi Meyers to the Raiders, the Patriots were projected to earn a fourth-round draft pick as part of the NFL’s compensatory draft picks formula. Adding Smith-Schuster on a similar deal, however, will likely cancel out that extra selection.

At the moment New England has now signed more outside free agents (3) than were lost to the market (1). However, neither Calvin Anderson nor Riley Reiff are projected to factor into calculations; their contracts will likely be too small.


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