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NFL free agency 2023: How JuJu Smith-Schuster fits into the Patriots wide receiver group

New England has added a new wide receiver to the equation.

NFL: JAN 01 Broncos at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One day after losing their most productive wide receiver from the last three seasons, the New England Patriots made a splash. The team signed veteran wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to a reported three-year contract, seemingly to help replace the production that was being lost with Jakobi Meyers’ departure.

Smith-Schuster is an interesting player. A second-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017, he averaged over 900 yards over his first four years in the NFL. Following an injury-riddled 2021 campaign, he left to join the Kansas City Chiefs and promptly helped them win a Super Bowl — reestablishing himself as a reliable pass catcher worthy of playing a prominent role in a team’s offense.

That team will be the Patriots for the foreseeable future. So, with that said, let’s take a look how Smith-Schuster fits onto the wide receiver depth chart.

Wide receiver depth chart

JuJu Smith-Schuster: Smith-Schuster is not a classic WR1, but he surely has proven himself a productive player between his stints in Pittsburgh and Kansas City. The 26-year-old will not take over Jakobi Meyers’ former role one-for-one, but he will be used in a similar fashion — inside the formation, primarily from the slot, moving the chains. Smith-Schuster offers intriguing upside as a runner with the ball in his hands, and as such might be a more dynamic part of the New England passing offense than the ever-reliable Meyers was.

DeVante Parker: The 2022 trade acquisition did not necessarily light up the scoreboard in his first year with the Patriots — he caught 31 passes for 539 yards and three touchdowns. He had some solid moments, though, and was a bright spot in an oftentimes uninspired passing game. At the moment, Parker projects as the team’s No. 1 perimeter receiver but his spot on the roster is not guaranteed due to his easy-to-get-out-of contract.

Kendrick Bourne: Coming off a disappointing season, the hope is that Bourne will be able to bounce back in a more stable setup provided by new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. If he can return to the levels of play he showed in 2021, when he was one of the Patriots’ most productive receivers and built some solid chemistry with Mac Jones, he should have a spot on the roster as a Z-receiver type.

Tyquan Thornton: A second-round draft pick by the Patriots last year, Thornton caught 22 passes for 247 yards and a pair of touchdowns as a rookie. He had his growing pains along the way, but showed that he can successfully attack the field vertically and challenge defenses due to his rare speed. The question is whether or not New England sees him more as an X like he was used at Baylor, or as a Z-receiver.

Tre Nixon: Nixon turned head last offseason, showing an impressive connection with Mac Jones in mandatory minicamp. However, he was unable to build on this success and eventually spent all of 2022 on the practice squad. While he might get another shot to prove himself this summer, he probably should not be expected to suddenly break out in his third year in the system.

Lynn Bowden Jr.: Like Nixon, former third-round draft pick Bowden Jr. also spent 2022 on New England’s developmental roster. He offers intriguing versatility, having played quarterback and running back in college, but in three years in the NFL he has yet to produce at a consistent level.

In addition to these six players, the Patriots also have two others on their roster who are officially listed as wide receivers. However, neither Matthew Slater nor Raleigh Webb are on the team because of their receiving prowess: they are special teamers through and through, having combined to take the field for just 15 snaps without registering any statistics in 2022.

The Patriots also have one wide receiver on the free agency market. Nelson Agholor, whose two-year contract with the team officially expired on Wednesday, is coming off a disappointing stint in New England; his return is doubtful at this point in time.

While the addition of Smith-Schuster solidifies the wide receiver position, the Patriots very much remain in the market for more help at the position. Smith-Schuster is unproven in their system; Parker and Bourne are entering contract years and come with their own questions; Thornton’s development from Year 1 to Year 2 remains to be seen; Nixon and Bowden Jr. are little more than depth options.

New England adding another pass catcher either through free agency, the trade market, or the draft — or through more than one avenue — is certainly still possible. Signing Smith-Schuster takes some pressure off the club to find starter-level depth, particularly on the inside, but it does not bar the Patriots from making further investments.


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