National Football League
Why are Patriots newcomers Mike Gesicki, JuJu Smith-Schuster struggling?
National Football League

Why are Patriots newcomers Mike Gesicki, JuJu Smith-Schuster struggling?

Published Sep. 27, 2023 5:40 p.m. ET

It's easy to forget that he New England Patriots added tight end Mike Gesicki and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster during the offseason. Neither player has taken a central role in the offense after three weeks. 

It's fair to say that's a surprise, given Smith-Schuster figured to be New England's feature slot receiver and Gesicki is a tight end in Bill O'Brien's tight-end-friendly system. 

Smith-Schuster signed a three-year, $25.5 million deal with New England. Gesicki signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal with the Patriots. Over the first three games, Smith-Schuster has 10 catches for 66 yards. Gesicki has nine catches for 87 yards. Neither player has a touchdown.

That's an unimpressive set of stats for an offense that is simultaneously crowded and yet lacking — all at once. It's crowded in the sense that Smith-Schuster is competing for snaps with DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne and rookie Demario Douglas. Gesicki is competing against Hunter Henry (and actually now against Pharaoh Brown, who is getting work mostly as a blocking tight end). And so you can probably also see why I've labeled this group as lacking. New England has more No. 2 and No. 3 options than anyone else in the league. 


But they don't have a No. 1.

[McKenna: Patriots will need an alpha to emerge on offense if they want to sniff playoffs]

The composition of the Patriots’ receiver and tight end rooms looks a little bit like someone’s closet after too much thrift store shopping. Sure, it was cheap. But nothing really fits.

In Week 3, with the Patriots' skill players at full health, Smith-Schuster was WR2 at 74% of the team's offensive snaps while Gesicki was TE2 with 47% of snaps. That was a run-heavy game plan against the Jets. Gesicki saw 72% of the team's snaps in the previous week against the Dolphins. They're on the field; they're just not highly targeted.

As the Patriots (1-2) try to improve their passing game in order to save their season, my sense is that Gesicki is a part of the solution. And Smith-Schuster … might not be.

Gesicki is actually generating a substantial amount of separation, with 4.7 yards per route run. That puts him at sixth-best in the NFL among all pass-catchers. Smith Schuster, meanwhile, is posting a respectable 2.8 yards per route run. (That's on par with Amon-Ra St. Brown and Justin Jefferson.) Pretty good, right?

But here's the problem: Smith-Schuster ranks second worst in terms of yards after the catch over expected. He's averaging minus-2 in that category, meaning he generates two fewer yards after the catch than a receiver would be expected to. That's really bad, of course. As mentioned, only one receiver in the entire NFL has posted a worse number: the Rams' Van Jefferson. And Gesicki isn't doing much better, with minus-1.1, which ties him at sixth-worst.

As a team, the Patriots actually rank seventh in the NFL in YAC with 376. The primary contributors to that number are Rhamondre Stevenson (85), Bourne (51) and Brown (49). (Brown got all his YAC on a 58-yard touchdown last week.) That's where Gesicki and Smith-Schuster have largely been non-factors in generating yardage for the offense.

And the Patriots desperately need YAC to generate big plays, because their deep game is not working.

New England has the fewest passing plays of 20-plus yards in the NFL with just three. Quarterback Mac Jones is 3-of-18 in that range. The good news? He's not throwing interceptions, which speaks to his strong decision-making. The bad news? He has been completely out of sync with his pass-catchers at long range.

Is Mac Jones the Patriots' long-term answer at QB?

Now, these two new pass-catchers (Gesicki, Smith-Schuster) aren't traditional deep threats. But maybe Gesicki can make a difference, particularly if he can start to generate more YAC.

It was foolish for anyone to expect the Patriots to suddenly turn into the 2008 version of themselves with the arrival of O'Brien. Tom Brady is gone. Henry and Gesicki aren't Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. But the Patriots are throwing the ball a lot, with 125 passing attempts (fourth in NFL). They're just not completing enough of those passes (64.8%, 12th-worst in NFL) nor are they converting those attempts into enough yardage (six yards per attempt, sixth-worst in NFL). They lack explosiveness. They lack a red-zone threat.

And they haven't gotten those qualities from Smith-Schuster. Take Jones' deep passes to the receiver on Sunday, for example. Jones threw two balls that were essentially uncatchable near the sideline. They were back-shoulder fades. Smith-Schuster wasn't nearby. Why? O'Brien indicated the receiver was mostly at fault, not getting to the right spot.

"We work hard on those throws in practice. Sometimes, early in the season, it's hard to simulate that," O'Brien said. "It comes from repetition. That's not any excuse at all. We need to do a better job of practicing those and making sure that we hit those in practice and getting it done in the game. We were close but close isn't good enough."

It's about timing. It's about trust. It's about chemistry. And Jones and Smith-Schuster don't seem to have it yet.

Receivers coach Troy Brown said that Smith-Schuster's chemistry with Jones might have a delayed development due to the receiver's injury that held him out of OTAs and minicamp. Now the obvious solution to a problem like this is to lean on a receiver with clear chemistry with Jones. I'm thinking about Jakobi Meyers, who signed with the Las Vegas Raiders this offseason on a three-year, $33 million contract. New England apparently preferred Smith-Schuster for roughly $8 million less — even if it meant risking that he was a misfit in the offense. (And so far, he's definitely a misfit in the offense.) 

Right now, Smith-Schuster doesn't look like a receiver who deserves more targets or more snaps. If anything, he's playing poorly enough to make me wonder whether rookie receiver Demario Douglas deserves a bigger share of touches. Maybe Smith-Schuster has lost a step due to a knee injury, which MMQB's Albert Breer has indicated is more serious than the receiver is saying. Perhaps that's because he has struggled to grapple with the offense, which he admitted was a massive challenge upon his arrival with the Patriots.

"I'm bothered because we work so hard, day in and day out," Smith-Schuster said last week when talking about the team's 0-2 start. "[We] put in the team and effort and we fall short. It's frustrating. It's like you go home and you study all night long and keep going. And you're so close. You need an A+ to pass and you get like a B. It's the worst feeling ever."

Smith-Schuster is going to have to start showing separation and YAC skills that he hasn't if his performances — and the team performances — are going to improve.

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It's a little different for Gesicki. The stats and film indicate he can help the Patriots. He is essentially a receiver, according to Bill Belichick. Gesicki doesn't really do a lot of blocking, but he should get winnable matchups in the passing game, where linebackers won't be able to cover him. And a big part of Gesicki's strong separation stats are coming on downfield routes. Jones just hasn't found his tight end for a big play, but that's an area where the Patriots should seek more opportunities. That could quickly help the TE generate more YAC.

It seems like the Patriots haven't been able to get the levels of production out of either player. For Smith-Schuster, that might be an indicator he's not converting enough of his chances. For Gesicki — maybe just maybe — they're not giving him enough chances.

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the 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 @henrycmckenna.


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