Knowing they lacked weapons for Mac Jones to target, the New England Patriots made a bit of a splashy signing this offseason. For the most part, it’s unusual for Bill Belichick to open up the franchise pocketbook in free agency, but that wasn’t the case with JuJu Smith-Schuster, who inked a three-year, $25.5 million contract. Earning an average of $8.5 million per season, Smith-Schuster immediately became the highest-paid wide receiver on the Patriots.
Thanks to the investment made in the former Steelers and Chiefs receiver, the expectation was for Smith-Schuster to emerge as one of the top pass-catchers in Foxboro, especially considering he was Patrick Mahomes’ second-leading receiver in a Super Bowl season.
But that just hasn’t been the case for Smith-Schuster in New England. While he did get the start in Week 1 against the Philadelphia Eagles, he hauled in just 4-of-7 targets for 33 yards. Not exactly an inspiring performance.
A deeper look at the film shows Smith-Schuster didn’t even have a big role on Sunday, which was never more clear than the team’s final drive when they needed a touchdown to overcome a 25-20 deficit, yet the former Super Bowl winner was nowhere to be seen. The Patriots rolled with Kendrick Bourne and even rookie sixth-round picks Demario Douglas plus Kayshon Boutte over Smith-Schuster instead.
It was an unusual decision, to say the least, which led to questions for Patriots receivers coach Ross Douglas. Here’s what he had to say about Smith-Schuster’s absence at the most crucial point in the team’s Week 1 loss.
“We just did what we thought was best to be able to move the ball and score points.”Patriots WR coach Ross Douglas on Smith-Schuster being benched on team’s final drive
But that’s not all. As Andrew Callahan tells it, multiple team sources feel Smith-Schuster is not currently among the team’s five best pass-catchers. But it’s not purely based on ability.
While it’s probably too early to overreact to one game, it should also be noted that Smith-Schuster still played 43 snaps last Sunday, third-most among Patriots receivers. Kendrick Bourne (73) and Kayshon Boutte (55) were the others who out-snapped him.
Then the Patriots also have a dynamic duo at tight end, with Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki, who were also likely included as two pass-catchers currently ahead of Smith-Schuster on the target hierarchy. But again, what happens in early September is rarely reflective of what we see in late December when teams make their playoff push. If Smith-Schuster is still lagging behind then it will be a much bigger concern.
The Patriots would face a dead cap charge of $10.7 million if they decided to release Smith-Schuster at any point this season. Doing so would only offer a cap savings of $6 million, which means they’re likely stuck with him, barring a trade.