When wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster explains why he signed with the Patriots as a free agent this offseason, he typically mentions two things: coach Bill Belichick and the opportunity.
For the 26-year-old Smith-Schuster, entering his seventh NFL season, the three-year contract with Patriots is a chance to prove that he can still be a productive target, that he can still be a reliable option. New England’s receiving corps lacks an elite No. 1 playmaker, so the passing attack will rely heavily on a collective effort.
There are concerns about Smith-Schuster’s health, as he missed the majority of the spring while rehabbing a knee injury suffered in January. But he returned for training camp and hasn’t appeared on the injury report ahead of Week 1. Amid reports that his knee is “a mess,” Smith-Schuster is saying all the right things, that he feels “great” and is improving daily.
The hope is that Smith-Schuster can stay healthy and play an integral role in reviving an offense that regressed significantly last season.
“Since I got here, I feel welcomed, I feel like we’re a unit, we’re one,” Smith-Schuster said. “The confidence is high. I think everybody worked their butt off through OTAs and training camp to now. We’re just ready to play.”
When Smith-Schuster began his career in Pittsburgh as a second-round pick, he was viewed as a high-volume, possession receiver as well as an aggressive ball carrier, with strong hands and body control. His breakout 2018 season is by far the best of his career, highlighted by 111 receptions on 166 targets for 1,426 yards and 7 touchdowns. Those numbers ranked near the top of the league, among the likes of DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, and Michael Thomas.
The hot start reflected Smith-Schuster’s buzzy journey to the pros. Growing up in Long Beach, Calif., Smith-Schuster played in the Snoop Youth Football League, a nonprofit founded by rapper Snoop Dogg to provide inner-city children with the opportunity to play football. Smith-Schuster’s style of play was so captivating that he earned the nickname “SportsCenter,” because Snoop Dogg had a feeling he would be watching his highlights in the future.
Once he got to high school, Smith-Schuster continued to garner attention. Raul Lara, the coach at Long Beach Poly, immediately took a liking to him and knew he wanted to elevate him to the varsity squad by the end of his freshman year.
“You could just tell he had the ‘it’ factor to be great, from way back when,” said Josiah Blandin, a former high school teammate.
Smith-Schuster graduated high school as a five-star recruit and committed to Southern Cal, where he went on to join the school’s lengthy list of high-performing wide receivers. His 3,092 career receiving yards are the third most in school history, while his 25 touchdowns rank fifth.
The pedigree is undeniable for Smith-Schuster.
To this day, his game exhibits the same successful elements: going across the middle, gaining yards after the catch, and maintaining a high catch rate.
The Patriots are betting on the fact that Smith-Schuster can still contribute, even with the lingering availability concerns. He missed four games with a knee injury in 2019 and 12 games with a right shoulder injury in 2021.
Last season, as a member of the Chiefs, Smith-Schuster suffered a minor knee injury that sidelined him during training camp. But he returned for the regular season, playing in all but one game (concussion) and logging 66.6 percent of the offense’s snaps. He finished with 78 receptions on 101 targets for 933 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Before the start of last season, Smith-Schuster expressed his interest in showing he’s past the injuries. He pushed back on the notion that he’s fallen off. A year later, the conversations are strikingly similar. And Smith-Schuster once again is out to prove he’s a “reliable guy.”
“In tough times, tough situations, [the team] can go to me, “Smith-Schuster said. “I want to give our offense that confidence to make plays when it matters. All day, every day.”
Looming over Smith-Schuster’s season is New England’s decision to let Jakobi Meyers walk. The Patriots signed Meyers as an undrafted rookie in 2019 and developed him into a tough, dependable slot receiver that ended up being a favorite target for quarterback Mac Jones.
When Meyers hit free agency last offseason, the Patriots let him go. The Raiders signed the 26-year-old Meyers to a deal with the same general terms of Smith-Schuster: three years, $33 million. Although the details differ, even Meyers couldn’t help but take note of the comparison. Fair or not, their performances will likely be compared over the course of the season.
Smith-Schuster started training camp strong, and though he hasn’t necessarily wowed, he continued to make plays throughout the summer. The key, though, is that he’s been available, especially with DeVante Parker recently practicing in a limited capacity because of a knee injury and Tyquan Thornton on injured reserve because of a shoulder injury.
The lack of big, flashy plays isn’t as much of a concern. As long as Smith-Schuster stays healthy, he functions better as a consistent chain mover, one that still can rack up stats. Given the state of their offense, the Patriots are certainly counting on him to produce.
“I’m excited to go out there and showcase what we’ve been working on the past five, six weeks,” Smith-Schuster said. “Just excited to go out there and play.”