With the NFL free agency and draft both in the rear-view mirror, and the second phase of voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are officially “on to 2023.”
At the moment, the Patriots have a full 90-man roster. Only 53 of those players will be able to survive roster cutdowns and ultimately make the active team, with others competing for practice squad spots. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take an in-depth look at the men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping New England rebound from a disappointing 2022 season.
Today, the series continues with seventh-year wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Name: JuJu Smith-Schuster
Position: Inside receiver
Opening day age: 26 (11/22/1996)
Size: 6’1”, 215 lbs
Jersey number: 7
Contract status: Under contract through 2025 (2026 UFA)
After a productive first three seasons to start his college career at USC, Smith-Schuster decided to forgo his senior year in hopes of turning pro. The decision was a good one, as he heard his name called fairly early: the Pittsburgh Steelers selected him with the 62nd overall selection in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. He burst onto the scene quickly, and was named to the PFWA All-Rookie team in Year 1 and the Pro Bowl in Year 2.
However, after 172 catches, 2,348 yards and 15 touchdowns his first two seasons, injuries started to take their toll. When healthy, Smith-Schuster still was a productive player but he appeared in only 33 of a possible 51 games between 2019 and 2021. This, in part, contributed to his departure from Pittsburgh in 2022; he went on to spend his sixth NFL season with the Kansas City Chiefs — a bounce-back campaign that saw him post the second-highest receiving total of his career and win a Super Bowl.
Between his stints in Pittsburgh and Kansas City, Smith-Schuster has appeared in a combined 85 regular season and playoff games. He has caught a total of 432 passes for 5,065 yards and 31 touchdowns.
Stats: 19 games (16 starts) | 892 offensive snaps (66.6%) | 109 targets, 88 catches, 1,022 yards, 3 TDs | 3 fumbles (2 lost)
Season recap: Coming off an injury-riddled 2021 season in Pittsburgh, Smith-Schuster did not return to the Steelers in free agency. Instead, he took his talents to Kansas City via an incentive-filled one-year contract at a base value of $3.76 million. When all was said and done, the veteran wideout far surpassed that number: through various escalators and the Chiefs winning the Super Bowl, he ended up earning $10.2 million — 271.3 percent of the original base agreed upon.
Smith-Schuster proved himself one of the team’s most reliable players on the offensive side of the ball, and its No. 1 wide receiver in several categories. In his 19 combined regular season and playoff games, he had more targets (109), receptions (88) and receiving yards (1,022) than any other Chiefs player at his position; he also scored three touchdowns.
JuJu takes it home‼️— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) October 16, 2022
: #BUFvsKC on CBS pic.twitter.com/5UyTeTOo25
Along the way, Smith-Schuster had some impressive moments — culminating in a Super Bowl win over the Philadelphia Eagles that saw him catch seven passes for 53 yards. He also had a pair of 100-yard receiving contests in his first (and only) season with the Chiefs, and twice caught 10-plus passes in a game.
Smith-Schuster may not have set the world on fire with his receiving, but he proved himself a trustworthy target for quarterback Patrick Mahomes. As a consequence, he ended the season having played 892 of a possible 1,340 offensive snaps (66.6%).
That number likely would have been a lot higher had the veteran not dealt with several relatively minor injuries.
Smith-Schuster hurt his quad and hamstring in a game against Tampa Bay in October, before suffering a concussion — the third of his pro career — the following month: he absorbed a hard hit in a mid-November game against Jacksonville and had to miss the following week’s contest 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 suffered with a knee injury. Smith-Schuster got hurt in the AFC title game against the Cincinnati Bengals. and as a consequence was limited to only 31 snaps (45%) that day; with two weeks rest ahead of the Super Bowl, however, he was able to play 69 percent of snaps against Philadelphia.
His injury woes were not the only negative from his 2022 season. Smith-Schuster also fumbled the ball on three separate occasions, with two of those loose footballs ending up with the opponent.
Despite those hiccups, however, he can feel very good about his one-year stint in Kansas City. Not only did he reestablish himself as a productive NFL player and earned his first championship, he also set himself up nicely for another trip to unrestricted free agency.
What will be his role? Smith-Schuster joins the Patriots as a potential No. 1 option at the wide receiver position in terms of target share, and projects as a starter-level player who will be on the field in most personnel packages. His usage will closely mirror that of his de facto predecessor, Jakobi Meyers, in that he will serve as a Z-type receiver who can make hay from the slot but also move out wide as a perimeter target.
What is his growth potential? His potential in the Bill O’Brien-led Patriots offense remains to be seen, but Smith-Schuster has already shown what his peak can be back when he caught 111 passes for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns in his sophomore season with the Steelers. Similar production should not be expected, but him staying consistent with last year’s numbers — 88/1,022/3 over 19 games — would constitute some level of growth compared to his up-and-down final few years in Pittsburgh.
Does he have positional versatility? As noted above, Smith-Schuster brings some positional flexibility to the table. Even though he projects as more of an inside receiver in New England, he actually saw more of his snaps on the outside in 2022: the Chiefs split him out wide on 532 snaps (59.6%) compared to 358 in the slot (40.1%) and two inline (0.2%). He will see his fair share of outside snaps in 2023, but probably not as consistently as he did in Kansas City. He also has some experience as a kickoff returner, but has not played that role since his rookie campaign.
What is his salary cap situation? As part of the three-year, $25.5 million contract Smith-Schuster signed with the Patriots in mid-March, he is carrying a salary cap hit of $4.67 million in 2023. Both his $1.1 million base salary and his $2.63 million signing bonus proration are fully guaranteed, while a majority of his up to $1 million in per-game roster bonuses — $941,176 — is considered likely to be earned and therefore counted against New England’s books this season.
How safe is his roster spot? Considering the contract he signed with the Patriots in mid-March, and his projected role as a starter-level member of their offense, it is safe to assume that Smith-Schuster will be on the team come the regular season. And not just that: he will likely be one of the most productive members of New England’s passing attack, and one of Mac Jones’ favorite targets.
One-sentence projection: Smith-Schuster will do something in 2023 that Jakobi Meyers was unable to accomplish in 2022, and lead the Patriots in receptions.