FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Bill Belichick always seems to have a surprise or two up his hoodie sleeve in free agency, and thus far, the biggest of 2023 has been his receiver swap of JuJu Smith-Schuster for Jakobi Meyers.
Even longtime safety Devin McCourty didn’t see it coming. Fresh off announcing his retirement last week, he said on sports radio WEEI that he was shocked the team didn’t bring Meyers back on the three-year, $33 million contract he signed with the Las Vegas Raiders. Meyers had expressed an interest in returning to New England, but the team’s offers fell short compared to others on the market, according to a source with direct knowledge of the negotiations.
McCourty, who became a pillar of what the organization strives to represent over the past 13 years, saw Meyers as not only the team’s most productive pass-catcher, but also next in the line of great New England leaders.
“From a leadership standpoint going forward, he’s a guy that you say ‘Be like him.’ Undrafted guy. Earned it. Works his butt off every single day,” McCourty said in the radio interview. “So I think that’s a big loss. Very similar to Julian Edelman.”
That’s a lofty comparison, and surely something Belichick didn’t give up without great thought.
Belichick often says every decision he makes is in what he believes is the best interest of the team; considering that Meyers and Smith-Schuster signed similar contracts, he appears to have made a clear-cut calculation that Smith-Schuster is an overall upgrade.
For one, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Smith-Schuster is more of a threat after the catch. According to NFL Next Gen Statshis yards after catch above expectation last season was +141, which ranked fifth in the NFL, behind the Dolphins’ Jaylen Waddle, Eagles’ AJ Brown, Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase and 49ers’ Deebo Samuel.
While part of that could be tied to playing in the Chiefs’ high-flying offense — and how defenders also had to pay attention to tight end Travis Kelce and others — YAC has been a big part of Smith-Schuster’s game since he entered the NFL as a second-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017.
Smith-Schuster, who like Meyers, fits best on the inside of the field but has flexibility to play outside, also has had more career production than Meyers.
In 79 games (65 starts), he has totaled 401 receptions for 4,788 yards with 29 touchdowns. Meyers has played in 60 games and amassed 235 catches for 2,758 yards and eight touchdowns.
Belichick is projecting that will continue in New England, which is part of the risk teams and players take in free agency. Speaking from a player’s perspective, McCourty said in the WEEI radio interview that those projections can be a burden.
“That’s why most are very comfortable staying [on their team], if you get paid around the rate you think you should get paid and you’ve earned. Because ‘I know how this is going to play out. I know I can be productive in this system,’” he said.
“Like Jonnu [Smith]. Jonnu is a good football player. But you leave and go in a new system, how is that going to work out? There’s so much unknown.”
Smith, of course, signed a four-year, $50 million contract with the Patriots in March of 2021. On Monday, after two subpar seasons, he was traded to the Atlanta Falcons in exchange for a seventh-round pick.
There is one other notable element of risk Belichick has assumed in making the swap of Meyers for Smith-Schuster, and it relates to his oft-repeated phrase, “There’s nothing more important than the health of the football team.”
Smith-Schuster, although only 26, has battled notable injuries in his career, in part due to his physical style of play. Most recently, he missed all but five games in 2021 with a shoulder injury. This past season, he was diagnosed with a concussion after absorbing a hard hit in an early December game, which sidelined him the following week. He later battled through a lingering knee injury that knocked him out of the AFC Championship Game.
That injury history didn’t stop the Chiefs from attempting to bring Smith-Schuster back in 2023, but the Patriots were willing to offer a more lucrative contract, according to a front office source.
In doing so, after not aggressively negotiating with Meyers to return, Belichick rolled the dice with one of his patented surprises.