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Patriots Roster Breakdown: Redemption for JuJu Smith-Schuster?



New England Patriots wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (7) runs with the ball past Pittsburgh Steelers safety Damontae Kazee (23) during the first half of an NFL football game on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023, in Pittsburgh. He was the Patriots highest graded offensive player by Pro Football Focus in Week 14 (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

There are expected to be a lot of changes in the New England Patriots locker room before the 2024 season gets underway. The coaching staff has already seen significant turnover, most notably with Jerod Mayo replacing Bill Belichick as head coach. But what will the New England roster look like in the fall? Some of that will be determined by players not currently on the team. The NFL Draft and free agency will both bring new faces to Foxboro. But what about the players from 2023? Patriots Football Now will break down all potential 2024 roster players in “Patriots Roster Breakdown” before Week 1 arrives in September.

Today’s featured Patriots player: JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith-Schuster

Smith-Schuster is a 27-year-old wide receiver who just completed his first season in New England. He finished 2023 with 29 receptions, 260 receiving yards, and one touchdown. Smith-Schuster appeared in 11 games last season for the Patriots. Several medical issues prevented him from playing in more games. He entered the season with known knee issues. During the season he suffered a concussion, which caused him to miss two games. During his best game of the season against Pittsburgh in Week 14 he injured his ankle. The injury kept him sidelined for the remainder of the season.

JuJu Smith-Schuster had a career year with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018. He had 111 receptions, 1,486 yards, and seven touchdowns in his second NFL season. However, that was his only 1,000-yard campaign in his five years in Pittsburgh. He played one season with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2022, winning a Super Bowl, before joining the New England Patriots in free agency.

Working against Smith-Schuster in New England was him receiving a similar contract to what former Patriot Jakobi Meyers took to join the Las Vegas Raiders in free agency. In the first season following their respective deals, Meyers was significantly more productive. While the wideout was not responsible for the Patriots’ personnel decisions, it did not help him win over Patriots fans.

Pro Football Focus viewed Smith-Schuster unfavorably in 2023. His offensive grade for the season was 57.0, the worst of his career. For reference, a grade below 70.0 isn’t considered worthy of starting. A grade below 60.0 represents being replaceable by a non-roster player. It was a drop from his 70.1 in 2022 and a far cry from his peak grade of 81.8 in 2018.

Contract Status

JuJu Smith-Schuster signed a lucrative contract to come to New England, one which still has two years remaining. His reported three-year $33 million deal was identical on the surface as the one Meyers signed with the Raiders, though it was structured differently in terms of guaranteed money and incentives.

New England Patriots salary cap expert Miguel Benzan explained the various scenarios for New England cutting ties with Smith-Schuster.

To summarize, here are how the four options for the Patriots parting ways with JuJu Smith-Schuster affect the salary cap:

Pre-June 2 Cut:  -$2.9M in 2024; +$10.1M in 2025
Pre-June 2 Trade +$4.1M in 2024; +$10.1M in 2025
Post-June 2 Cut – $267K in 2024; +$7.5M in 2025
Post-June 2 Trade +$6.7M in 2024; +$7.5 M in 2025

Keeping JuJu Smith-Schuster on the roster remains an option as well.

Wide Receiver Group

The wide receiver room in New England includes Kendrick Bourne, DeMario Douglas, K.J. Osborn, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Tyquan Thornton, Kayshon Boutte, Jalen Reagor, T.J. Luther, and Kawaan Baker. The trio of Bourne, Douglas, and Thornton have been shown on social media working out with quarterback Bailey Zappe of late. Osborn was recently signed to a one-year deal.

The 2024 NFL Draft has a lot of talent at the wide receiver position. The Patriots are likely to add at least one more player to this unit in the draft. There remains a possibility they explore a deal for a proven veteran such as Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins or San Francisco’s Brandon Aiyuk as well.

Outlook for JuJu Smith-Schuster

Smith-Schuster had a very disappointing first season with the New England Patriots. Will he be able to redeem himself in 2024? Will he be given a chance to do so? Based on his production and salary, the Patriots would need to give up assets just for another team to take him off their hands. Trading JuJu Smith-Schuster before June 1 is the most helpful move in terms of New England’s salary cap over the next two seasons. The difference between doing that and cutting him later is worth roughly $4.4 million in 2024 and $2.6 million in 2025. If they can’t trade him before the draft, however, allowing him to prove he can still be a productive NFL receiver in training camp makes sense. Whether he can take advantage of such an opportunity remains to be seen. Getting and staying healthy is step one.