JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn't lived up to anyone's expectations early in his New England Patriots career. But it's also worth clarifying what those expectations were.
The Patriots signed the veteran wide receiver to a three-year contract in free agency worth roughly $25.5 million, with a cap hit of just $4.67 million for the 2023 season. That's a relative bargain considering Smith-Schuster racked up 933 receiving yards on 78 catches for the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in 2022 and made the Pro Bowl in 2018 with a monster 111-catch, 1,426-yard campaign for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But there was a reason Smith-Schuster didn't command a higher salary. As Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer has reported, the wideout battled a knee injury during the 2022 playoffs that lingered into the offseason and made the Chiefs wary of re-signing him.
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Breer confirmed Thursday on 98.5 The Sports Hub's "Zolak & Bertrand" that the Patriots -- as well as several other teams -- were also aware of Smith-Schuster's knee issues. So, why did they sign him anyway?
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"Because he came at a discount," Breer explained, as seen in the video player above. "Because the knee gave you the chance to sign a guy at a premium position at a less-than-premium rate. You pay him with the hope that he's going to turn into what he used to be."
As Breer pointed out, New England has a history of not breaking the bank for wide receivers -- but that's not the case around the league, where 13 wideouts are making at least $20 million per year on their current deals.
"I think we're so conditioned to thinking guys make a certain amount here, that sometimes we forget what the rest of the league is doing," Breer said. "Receivers are getting paid $23, $24, $25 million per year. A.J. Brown got $25 million per year in Philly. So, at (Smith-Schuster's) price point, you either get a guy who's probably a borderline No. 2 or No. 3, or you get a reclamation project like this, because of his cost."
The "reclamation project" hasn't paid dividends to date: Smith-Schuster has just 10 receptions for 66 yards on 16 targets through three games and looks like a No. 3 wideout at best in the Patriots' offense. He hasn't missed any practice or game time and recently insisted there are no issues with his knee, but he certainly doesn't look like the same player who was Patrick Mahomes' second option behind All-Pro Travis Kelce just one year ago.
"There was a lot of concern that the knee was going get worse, not better, from other teams," Breer added, "which is why other teams stayed away from him -- and which is why he was available at this price point.
"I'm sorry, but if you're not going to spend on the high end, this is what you're going to wind up with."