After losing Jakobi Meyers to the Las Vegas Raiders in free agency, the New England Patriots quickly brought in a replacement option: JuJu Smith-Schuster, a former second-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers who spent the 2022 season with the Kansas City Chiefs, was signed to a three-year contract.
While the deal was initially reported as being worth $33 million, the actual base value of the contract is “only” $25.4 million. Meanwhile, $7.5 million are tied directly to receiving yards incentives: he can earn an extra $1.5 million in 2023, as well as $3 million each in 2024 and 2025.
Why the Patriots opted for such a structure is easy to see. While a dynamic player when healthy, and an upgrade over Meyers from that perspective, Smith-Schuster has dealt with his fair share of injuries through the years.
2015 (USC): While he did not miss any games during his 2015 sophomore season at USC, Smith-Schuster twice dealt with injuries — starting with a broken bone in his right hand in October. He underwent surgery on the issue quickly and did not end up missing significant time. In fact, he caught eight passes for 138 yards and a touchdown in his return versus Arizona the following week.
The following month against Oregon, Smith-Schuster hurt his ankle. Again, he was ready for the next game.
2016 (USC): Smith-Schuster suffered an ankle injury in spring practices, as well as a minor turf toe issue during August’s preparatory sessions. Three days after that injury, he hurt his right hand.
During the season, the injury bug bit him only once: he suffered a hip pointer and arm injury in the same November game against UCLA. The issues limited him both in-practice and in-game the following week.
2017 (Steelers): Smith-Schuster’s bad injury luck followed him to the NFL. He sustained a concussion in his preseason debut and, after being cleared to return the following week, suffered a bone bruise in his knee in practice.
Smith-Schuster reentered concussion protocol in October, but did not end up missing any game time.
He did have to sit out one contest against Green Bay in November because of a hamstring injury. He later appeared to reaggravate the injury in December, but this time did not have to sit out any games.
2018 (Steelers): Smith-Schuster’s second year in the NFL saw him hurt his knee in mandatory minicamp. It would remain his only offseason injury, but he was unable to stay healthy in the regular season.
He missed practice in September because of an abdominal injury, but did play the following week. He caught four passes for 60 yards against the Baltimore Ravens and was on the field for 83 percent of the Steelers’ offensive snaps.
He then injured his groin in December and was limited in practice. He did not miss any games once again.
Finally, he hurt his knee at the Pro Bowl. Smith-Schuster caught a 16-yard pass, but had to limp off the field following the reception.
2019 (Steelers): The fourth quarter of the Steelers’ 33-3 season-opening loss in New England saw Smith-Schuster hurt his toe. He was listed on the injury report the next week, but ended up taking the field versus Seattle seven days later; he registered five catches for 84 yards despite the injury. He re-injured his toe in November, but again did not miss any time.
Smith-Schuster did miss time due to another injury suffered later that month. In Week 11 against Cleveland, he sustained a concussion and a knee injury on the same play. The head injury proved to be a comparatively minor issue, but the knee ailment forced him to sit out four games.
2020 (Steelers): Smith-Schuster hurt his knee in September but did not miss any game time. He had to deal with the issue throughout the season, however, and in January missed one practice ahead of a playoff game against Cleveland. The issue did not appear to bother him, though: he caught 13 passes for 157 yards and a score versus the Browns.
Besides his knee ailment, Smith-Schuster also hurt his foot in Week 11 against Jacksonville. The injury was seemingly caused by him stepping onto a penalty flag. He missed one practice that week, but eventually played 93 percent of offensive snaps while catching eight throws for 37 yards and a touchdown; that game being delayed three times due to Covid-19 did help him, though.
2021 (Steelers): Smith-Schuster’s final season in Pittsburgh was more of the same. He was productive when on the field, but injuries limited his availability. In September, for example, he had to leave a Week 3 game against Cincinnati with bruised ribs.
Two weeks later, he suffered a serious shoulder injury versus Denver. He tore his labrum and underwent surgery, missing the final 12 games of the regular season before returning for a playoff loss to the Chiefs. Smith-Schuster caught five passes for 26 yards that day.
2022 (Chiefs): His one-year stint with the Chiefs saw him pop up on the injury list several times. Smith-Schuster first suffered a sore knee in training camp, having to sit out a pair of practices as a result.
In October, he hurt his quad and hamstring in a game against Tampa Bay. He was ready by next week’s contest versus Las Vegas; playing 83 percent of snaps, he finished with three catches for 33 yards.
In mid-November, Smith-Schuster suffered the third concussion of his pro career: he absorbed a hard hit in the second quarter against Jacksonville, and had to miss the following week’s game versus the Los Angeles Chargers as a result. He was back one week later, but only slowly reintegrated into the mix.
During the playoffs, he then dealt with a knee injury: Smith-Schuster suffered the ailment in the AFC title game against the Cincinnati Bengals. With two weeks rest ahead of the Super Bowl, however, he was able to play 69 percent of snaps and catch seven passes for 53 yards.
What it means for the Patriots
There is no way around it: Smith-Schuster’s injury history is significant. While he never suffered a season-ending ailment over the course of his career, there were several instances of him being limited either in practice or during games.
In total, he missed 18 of a possible 104 games since arriving in the NFL (17.3%) — a majority of which (12) coming during his 2021 season in Pittsburgh.
Given that background, New England’s contract structure makes plenty of sense: compared to Jakobi Meyers, who signed a three-year, $33 million base-value deal with the Las Vegas Raiders, Smith-Schuster has been more prone to minor ailments. He also has proven himself a very good player when healthy.
The Patriots are erring on the side of caution with their deal, but simultaneously do acknowledge Smith-Schuster’s ability to serve as a productive player within their offense. Him earning his full value through incentives would be a win-win scenario.