Over the last two days, the New England Patriots made what amounted to a one-for-one trade to retool their receiver room.
On Tuesday, Jakobi Meyers agreed to terms on a three-year, $33 million contract with the Las Vegas Raiders. A little over 24 hours later, the Patriots signed JuJu Smith-Schuster to take his place.
The particulars of Smith-Schuster’s deal had yet to be reported as of Wednesday afternoon, but the totals were identical: three years, $33 million. That symmetry wasn’t lost on Meyers, whose departure “shocked” at least one former Patriots teammate. Minutes after the signing was reported, Meyers tweeted: “Cold world lol.”
Indeed it is.
(UPDATE: The contracts actually are structured quite a bit differently, with Smith-Schuster needing to earn the final $7.5 million of his $33 million through incentives. Meyers only needs to be playing for the Raiders to earn his money, but his deal offers little security beyond Year 1.)
Meyers was a model Patriot for his four seasons in New England, blossoming from an undrafted free agent into an offensive cornerstone. He led the team in receiving yards in 2020, 2021 and 2022, warding off challenges from several big-name newcomers in the process, and was highly respected for his work ethic and quiet leadership. Quarterback Mac Jones loved him, trusting him more than any other Patriots pass-catcher on gotta-have-it third downs.
But while Meyers was, as Devin McCourty put it, “a big loss” for New England, Smith-Schuster should be an upgrade. In making the switch, the Patriots are opting for explosiveness and upside over the stability, familiarity and durability that Meyers provides.
Overall, they’re similar players. Both are taller slot receivers who also play outside, each logging more than 250 snaps at both alignments this season, per Pro Football Focus. Meyers is listed as one inch taller and five pounds heavier than his 6-foot-1, 215-pound replacement, though Smith-Schuster appears bigger and more muscular. Both will turn 27 in November.
Meyers has a career catch rate of 68.3% and a yards-per-catch average of 11.7. Smith-Schuster? 70.1% and 11.9.
But there are two areas in which Smith-Schuster, who played five seasons for Pittsburgh and one for Kansas City after entering the NFL as a 2017 second-round pick, owns a clear edge over his Patriots predecessor.
The more straightforward of the two is that Smith-Schuster simply has a stronger track record of production in all three receiving categories. If you rank all six of his seasons and all four of Meyers’, Smith owns three of the top four spots in receptions; the top three and four of the top five in receiving yards; and the top three and five of the top six in receiving touchdowns.
1. Smith-Schuster 111 (’18)
2. Smith-Schuster 97 (’20)
3. Meyers 83 (’21)
4. Smith-Schuster 78 (’22)
5. Meyers 67 (’22)
6. Meyers 59 (’20)
7. Smith-Schuster 58 (’17)
8. Smith-Schuster 42 (’19)
9. Meyers 26 (’19)
10. Smith-Schuster 15 (’21)
1. Smith-Schuster 1,426 (’18)
2. Smith-Schuster 933 (’22)
3. Smith-Schuster 917 (’17)
4. Meyers 866 (’21)
5. Smith-Schuster 831 (’20)
6. Meyers 804 (’22)
7. Meyers 729 (’20)
8. Smith-Schuster 552 (’19)
9. Meyers 359 (’19)
10. Smith-Schuster 129 (’21)
1. Smith-Schuster 9 (’20)
T-2. Smith-Schuster 7 (’17)
T-2. Smith-Schuster 7 (’18)
4. Meyers 6 (’22)
T-5. Smith-Schuster 3 (’22)
T-5. Smith-Schuster 3 (’19)
7. Meyers 2 (’21)
Meyers had no touchdowns in 2019 and 2020, and Smith-Schuster had none in 2021, when a shoulder injury limited him to five games.
On the whole, Smith-Schuster has played with better quarterbacks than Meyers (Ben Roethlisberger and Patrick Mahomes), but he also wasn’t his team’s primary receiving option early in his career (Antonio Brown) or this past season (Travis Kelce). Meyers became the Patriots’ No. 1 receiving option midway through the 2020 campaign and never relinquished that title.
Beyond the counting stats, which don’t always paint an accurate picture of a receiver’s talents, Smith-Schuster also has a decisive edge over Meyers in his ability to generate yards after the catch. Consider these numbers:
In his five full seasons (excluding the injury-shortened ’21 campaign), Smith-Schuster has ranked in the top 15 among wide receivers in YAC per reception and YAC over expected four times, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. He ranked in the top 10 in both three times.
His lone mediocre showing from a YAC perspective came in 2020, when he ranked in the 60s in both categories. Yet even that year, Smith-Schuster posted a better YAC/reception (4.4) and YACOE (0.3) than Meyers has in any of his NFL campaigns.
Meyers never has recorded a YACOE above zero, and his career-best YAC/reception is 3.8. Smith-Schuster’s four other seasons all were above 1.7 in the former and 6.0 in the latter. In 2022, the only NFL wideout with more yards after catch over expected than Smith-Schuster were Jaylen Waddle, A.J. Brown, Ja’Marr Chase and Deebo Samuel. His average YAC ranked seventh.
Meyers’ YACOE was ninth-worst in the league this season, and the Patriots’ receivers as a unit ranked 27th in that metric. By swapping in Smith-Schuster, Bill Belichick and new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien look determined to change that in 2023.
It’ll be on Smith-Schuster, though, to quickly pick up New England’s offense and develop the necessary chemistry with Jones, who likely wasn’t thrilled to see his favorite talked walk in out the door. He also needs to prove he can stay healthy after missing 17 games over the last four seasons.
Wednesday’s signing raises the ceiling for the Patriots’ receiving corps — whose non-Meyers members combined to score just nine touchdowns this season, including one by cornerback Marcus Jones — but lowers its floor. New England also should continue to pursue other ways to improve this group through the trade market (DeAndre Hopkins? Jerry Jeudy? Courtland Sutton?) or the NFL draft.