Why did the Patriots trade Jacoby Meyers for JuJu Smith-Schuster?

Jacoby Myers is in New England. And Ju Ju Smith-Schuster is a patriot.

The two moves happened within 30 hours of each other. And clearly, when Myers decided to leave for the Las Vegas Raiders, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots had some urgency to lock up Smith-Schuster, the only other top player on the market.

It’s a bold decision for New England and Belichick, given their history of struggling to land wide receivers. The Patriots traded a familiar face in Myers (who led their team in receiving yards the past two years) to acquire a player with potential and upside.

Those are dangerous words in New England, especially when talking about receivers. Belichick struggles to capitalize on potential and upside. But that’s the widely held belief about Smith-Schuster — that he has more pure talent than someone like Meyers. And that’s because, from a production standpoint, Smith-Schuster has done more.

They are similar players: big slot receivers who have the versatility to play outside and inside. Smith-Schuster is 26 years old. He is 6-foot-1 and weighs 215 pounds. He ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in 2017. Myers is also 26. He’s 6-foot-2 and weighs 200 pounds. He ran a 4.63 40 during the 2019 pre-draft process.

I bet if you ask Belichick straight up what Smith-Schuster can do for the Patriots, he’ll say JSS can do everything Meyers does — and potentially more.

The Patriots signed JuJu Smith-Schuster to a three-year contract

The Patriots signed JuJu Smith-Schuster to a three-year contract

The Patriots drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in place of Jakobi Meyers, who signed with the Raiders. Colin Cowherd claims the move shows New England is behind the times.

As we compare JSS and Meyers, it’s worth looking at the two contracts they signed. Nominally, those deals appear identical, with Meyers making $33 million over three years and Smith-Schuster signing a contract with… the same terms. But on closer inspection, Myers is only guaranteed his first year. He essentially signed a one-year, $11 million deal. Smith-Schuster, meanwhile, is realistically looking at $18 million in his first two years. It’s not apples to apples. New England makes a smaller annual commitment — but a bit longer term.

But New England obviously doesn’t pay JSS as a WR1.

We have yet to see Smith-Schuster succeed as the top option on offense. The Steelers asked JuJu to take over the WR1 mantle in 2019, and he had one of his worst seasons: 42 catches, 552 yards, three touchdowns.

Smith-Schuster had a huge year in 2018, recording 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns – but JSS posted those numbers as the team’s WR2 behind career-high Antonio Brown. As the Chiefs’ No. 2 option (behind Travis Kelce) in 2022, Smith-Schuster recorded 78 catches for 933 yards and three touchdowns en route to winning the Super Bowl.

It may be a tough prediction for the Patriots to expect they can create the same level of production. After all, Smith-Schuster was in an offense with Kelce, Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid. In 2023, he is currently scheduled to work with Mac Jones, Hunter Henry and Bill O’Brien.

So why trade Meyers, a perfectly good WR2, for Smith-Schuster, another WR2? Why take away Jones’ favorite target of the past two seasons?

It’s not surprising for Belichick to develop an undrafted player into a premium free agent — and let him go, as the Patriots did with Myers. And it’s not even a surprise to see New England attack the free agent market at the same position. We saw Belichick sign cornerback Stephon Gilmore to the deal Malcolm Butler wanted in 2017 — until Butler ended up being traded to the Tennessee Titans. (And that decision worked great for the Patriots.) But Belichick has a history of bringing in cornerbacks and helping them make an immediate impact. He doesn’t have the same history with receivers, a position where New England has struggled mightily to maximize its acquisitions.

The Patriots certainly like Henry, who has found success in their offense in 2021. New England may also think it can get more out of receivers Kendrick Bourne, DeVant Parker and 2022 second-rounder Tyquan Thornton. But none of them — including JSS — can be a top-level option.

Maybe New England isn’t done adding pass catchers. Maybe Belichick will target an elite option. The offseason has just begun and the Patriots have engaged in trade talks regarding receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Jerry Judy, according to The Athletic. Tight end Dalton Schultz is also a free agent and has the potential to be an elite TE1. Of course, one more addition would help Smith-Schuster excel in his new situation.

But by trading Smith-Schuster and Myers, the Patriots are betting they can bring in a new player and get more out of him. New England is banking on O’Brien to get Smith-Schuster to speed up the offense. And maybe Jones can help the Patriots field the 2018 version of Smith-Schuster — or at the very least, Jones can help JSS continue the solid production he managed in Kansas City last season.

Before joining FOX Sports as an AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.

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