After sitting idly for most of three days, after watching team leader Devin McCourty retire and leading receiver Jakobi Meyers sign with the Raiders, the Patriots finally made a move Wednesday.
They took the money that Meyers got from Las Vegas — $33 million over three years — and gave it to JuJu Smith-Schuster, a six-year veteran who spent last year with the Chiefs after five years with the Steelers.
Smith-Schuster is a nice signing. He’s only 26 years old. He caught 26 touchdown passes in his first four seasons and has a 1,400-yard season on his résumé (2018). He can play in the slot and has the physicality to play outside. He was one of the best receivers in 2022 in terms of yards after catch, an area where the Patriots were sorely lacking.
The question, though, is whether Smith-Schuster is just a piece of the puzzle or the big move of the offseason. If it’s the latter, the Patriots are in trouble.
“That better be just the start,” former Patriot Tedy Bruschi said on ESPN. “Because there is no cornerback in the AFC East that’s looking at that move and is scared. Mac Jones, he needs more people to throw it to that are reliable, that can get separation and catch the ball. Bill [Belichick], go to work.”
The theme of this Patriots offseason was supposed to be “urgency.” The Krafts told us in a letter Jan. 9 that “no one in our organization is satisfied with the results from this past season,” when the Patriots finished 8-9 and missed the playoffs for the second time in three years.
Specifically, no one is satisfied with the offense, which ranked 26th in yards and 32nd in the red zone. So they hired a real offensive coordinator in Bill O’Brien, and went into the offseason armed with the seventh-most salary-cap space.
But swapping out Meyers, the team’s leading receiver for the past three years, for Smith-Schuster, who produced only modest numbers in a high-powered Chiefs offense (933 yards, 3 touchdowns), isn’t the magic fix. Or, the Patriots are being grossly optimistic if they think it is.
Smith-Schuster might fit better than Meyers, who was dependable but lacked speed. Among all wide receivers in 2022, Smith-Schuster ranked 11th in yards after the catch (455) and ninth in average YAC (5.8 per catch). Meyers ranked 40th (243) and 46th (3.6).
Wrote NFL’s Next Gen Stats on Twitter: “Smith-Schuster’s ability to create after the catch is a welcome addition to a Patriots’ wide receiver corps that gained the 6th-fewest [yards after contact over expected] in 2022.”
Of course, Smith-Schuster also had Patrick Mahomes throwing him the ball and Andy Reid calling the plays. Meyers decidedly did not.
Other than Smith-Schuster, the Patriots haven’t made any other consequential additions on offense, unless you count former Jets running back James Robinson, who signed late Wednesday, or the four backup-caliber right tackles they signed: Riley Reiff, Calvin Anderson, Yodny Cajuste, and Conor McDermott. (You shouldn’t.)
JuJu Smith-Schuster gained +141 yards after the catch over expected last season (5th-most among WR).— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) March 15, 2023
Smith-Schuster's ability to create after the catch is a welcome addition to a Patriots' wide receiver corps that gained the 6th-fewest YACOE in 2022 (+33).@TeamJuJu | @Patriots https://t.co/8bPaWPSsmD pic.twitter.com/Rrbb669fzO
Big names are on the move across the NFL. The Dolphins traded for Jalen Ramsey, the Jets appear to be on the verge of landing Aaron Rodgers, the Giants traded for Darren Waller, the Bears got D.J. Moore, and the Broncos beefed up their offensive line with Mike McGlinchey.
But the Patriots need more — much more.
The wide receiver room now has decent depth with Smith-Schuster, DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne, and Tyquan Thornton. Add in Hunter Henry — the only tight end on the roster after the Patriots traded Jonnu Smith to the Falcons — and running back Rhamondre Stevenson, and the Patriots have a decent set of weapons.
But they still have the same problem as last year: no No. 1 receiver.
The Patriots won’t be able to compete with the Chiefs and Bills and Bengals of the world until they get a true game-breaker for Jones. Smith-Schuster can’t be the final answer if the Patriots are serious about contending in 2023.
The offseason is still young, of course. The Patriots should be aggressively working the trade market, which may be the only way they can land a truly elite receiver. Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton of the Broncos and DeAndre Hopkins of the Cardinals look like the best bets, but the Patriots should keep pestering the Bengals about Tee Higgins and the 49ers about Deebo Samuel, just in case they can light a trade spark.
A few free agents may shake free, as well. The Jets look like they are about to release Corey Davis, and the 6-foot-3-inch receiver (who has caught four touchdown passes in five career games against the Patriots) could be a great fit in New England. Veteran Adam Thielen also is available after being released by the Vikings. Neither would put the Patriots over the top, but they would help the cause.
The Patriots also need a tight end after trading Smith. Mike Gesicki, Dalton Schultz, Austin Hooper, and Robert Tonyan are available. It’s also worth checking whether Albert Okwuegbunam, Mo Alie-Cox, or Zach Ertz could be had via trade.
The Patriots have taken a methodical approach to start free agency, focusing mostly on depth and administrative moves. Bringing back cornerback Jonathan Jones was a must. They apparently are throwing the kitchen sink at right tackle. They made a handful of decent administrative moves, such as bringing back defensive tackle Carl Davis, slot corner Myles Bryant, and team captain Matthew Slater. And now Smith-Schuster.
But this can’t be it. Swapping out Meyers for Smith-Schuster amounts to a shuffling of deck chairs.
There have to be more moves coming — that is, if the Patriots want to be taken seriously as contenders.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.