Unlike Andy Dalton or Jameis Winston, Cam Newton will have a chance to relaunch his career immediately rather than waiting for an injury to free up snaps. Newton's one-year Patriots deal, after 3½ months in free agency, also transforms a confusing quarterback situation.
Based on name recognition, the Newton-to-New England transaction would give the former MVP an ideal place to reboot and provide Bill Belichick a way for his team to remain a Super Bowl contender. But Newton will face challenges on several fronts.
Adding the 31-year-old standout makes more competitive sense than the Patriots giving the keys to Jarrett Stidham, a 2019 fourth-round pick with four NFL pass attempts and zero 20-touchdown pass college seasons. Newton both stands to buy Stidham more development time, after the COVID-19 pandemic nixed a pivotal offseason for Tom Brady's would-be successor, and aligns better with an aging Pats defense – one that will have six projected starters north of 30 by season’s end.
Newton's profile qualifies this signing for the Randy Moss-Antonio Brown tier of Patriots gambles. The nine-year Panthers starter is a three-time Pro Bowler, the NFL’s all-time rushing-touchdown king among quarterbacks and he did not exactly have a Moss- or Rob Gronkowski-type presence when he won the 2015 MVP award and piloted the Panthers to Super Bowl 50. But the Patriots did not proceed like a team a quarterback away from a Super Bowl this offseason. They operated like one content with a transition year.
The Patriots ate eight figures of Brady dead money and did little to augment their skill-position situation. They drafted two third-round tight ends, but these prospects will arrive in a bleak year for rookie assimilation – due to the coronavirus-altered offseason. The same skill cadre that helped Brady’s QBR drop from sixth in 2018 to 17th last year largely remains.
Julian Edelman is the NFL’s fourth-oldest active receiver, at 34. N’Keal Harry missing this offseason stings after the 2019 first-rounder played 220 snaps in an injury-marred rookie year. The Pats ranked 15th in rushing DVOA last season, and famed offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia’s second retirement will not help. This situation, personnel-wise, may remind Newton of some of his past setups. And he is at a different stage of his career compared to when he took Carolina to a Super Bowl when a sizable gulf existed between Greg Olsen and his next-best target.
Since the Panthers’ Super Bowl loss, Newton’s cumulative QBR figure ranks 30th. He has undergone two shoulder surgeries and a foot operation, missing 16 of his past 18 games. Newton played well before his shoulder relapse in 2018, adjusting to then-new Carolina offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s offense and leading the Panthers to a 6-2 start. He had a full offseason to learn Turner’s system and work with teammates. Those luxuries/necessities are not available now.
Considering the uncertainty Josh Allen brings for the Bills, the Patriots’ odds at winning a 12th straight AFC East title received a boost Sunday. That would be a major win for this year's team. New England’s 12-4 2019 showing came against mediocre competition -- four wins over teams with 2020 top-five picks, five more against .500-or-worse opposition. The Pats also have a tougher schedule than usual. Their 2020 docket features an NFL-high .537 opponents’ win percentage (based on 2019 records).
This move does give the Patriots exclusive Newton negotiating rights, opening a window for a long-term partnership – depending on this season's outcome. And it will give offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who received a head-coaching shot based on Matt Cassel’s 11-5 2008 season (with a better Pats roster), more to work with than the winner of a Stidham-Brian Hoyer competition.
But the current circumstances point to Newton elevating the Patriots to an upper-middle-class team -- at best -- rather than making them a serious threat to the Chiefs or Ravens in the conference.