JuJu Smith-Schuster agreed to sign with the New England Patriots for a three-year, $33 million contract, $16 million of which is guaranteed. Bjorn Yang-Vaernet examines the fantasy outlook for Smith-Schuster in 2023.
After going to Kansas City on a one-year deal in 2022 and winning a Super Bowl, JuJu Smith-Schuster cashed in and signed with the New England Patriots on a three-year, $33 million deal on Wednesday. It was rumored that the Chiefs wanted him back, but in the end, money talks, and the Patriots were able to offer Smith-Schuster more money.
After Jakobi Meyers signed a very similar contract with the Las Vegas Raiders on Tuesday, New England needed a wide receiver — primarily a slot WR — to fill his absence. The Patriots hope Smith-Schuster will be this guy and more for an offense that is looking to rebound after a disappointing 2022 season.
The Kansas City Career Revival
Smith-Schuster has had a very up-and-down career since bursting onto the scene as a rookie back in 2017. In the following season, Smith-Schuster finished as the overall WR8 and appeared to be on the verge of being the next young star WR. However, a combination of Antonio Brown leaving, Ben Roethlisberger’s declining play, and injuries derailed his promising career. In the next three years, Smith-Schuster finished as the WR61, WR22, and WR86 in terms of PPR fantasy points per game.
Instead of returning to the Steelers, Smith-Schuster decided to attempt resurrecting his career with Patrick Mahomes in 2022. Similar to his career path thus far, Smith-Schuster flashed his abilities, but did not put together a full season of dominance.
In Kansas City, Smith-Schuster was one of the many WR options that Andy Reid trotted out to complement Travis Kelce. Smith-Schuster only ran a route on 71% of dropbacks, a low number for a team’s No. 1 WR. Smith-Schuster finished with 101 targets, good for a mediocre 17% target share.
Beyond the headline numbers, advanced metrics don’t paint a great picture either. In terms of targets per route run, a metric that can highlight how good a WR was at earning targets when they were on the field, Smith-Schuster earned a target on 20% of his routes. Among WRs that ran at least 200 routes in the season, this ranked as the WR51. It should be noted that Smith-Schuster ran a short area route tree that often overlapped with a much better player in Kelce. However, Smith-Schuster made the most of his targets, ranking as the WR32 in yards per route run.
Smith-Schuster was primarily a short-area target, with an average depth of target of 7.3 yards. Notably, only 13 of his 101 targets were 15 yards or deeper downfield. Smith-Schuster’s receiving location chart highlights this usage.
Fortunately, the short area is where Smith-Schuster has excelled in recent years (although Roethlisberger is a big factor in this decline in production).
Positively, Smith-Schuster averaged 6.0 yards after the catch (YAC) per reception, an indication that he might not be as volume-dependent as his role appears on first glance. However, it how much of this yardage is attributable to Smith-Schuster himself, or the scheme of Andy Reid? According to NFL Next Gen Stats’ expected YAC per reception model, Smith-Schuster gained 1.8 more yards than expected, the no. 5 WR on the season. The strong YAC ability lead to 9.2 yards per target, his best performance in this metric since his rookie season.
Overall, I would consider Smith-Schuster’s career revived. He proved that when utilized in the role that fits the skillset his career was trending towards as he got older—a big, short-area WR that can make plays after the catch—he can be a contributor. Look no further than the Super Bowl where Smith-Schuster was targeted a team-leading nine times and caught seven balls for 53 yards.