No matter how the 2020-21 NFL seasons concludes, the New England Patriots will have to take a good, long look at the future of their quarterback position. As things currently sit, Jarrett Stidham is the only passer in the locker room under contract next season, which raises the question: what does the future hold for Cam Newton and the Patriots?
Rewinding to earlier this season, the Patriots had an impressive Week 1 win over the Miami Dolphins in which they showcased a unique power-run offensive scheme. The following week, Newton diminished any questions about his arm strength and health, throwing for nearly 400-yards in a last-second loss to Seattle. Things didn’t go as well in Week 3 for Newton and Co. performance-wise against the Las Vegas Raiders, but New England still came away with a 36-20 victory, improving to 2-1 on the year.
Things seemed all good in New England, as it appeared Bill Belichick had transitioned into life after Tom Brady rather easily. Newton’s Comeback Player of the Year murmur quickly became MVP talk, while $90 million contract extensions started to be predicted to keep the 31-year-old in Foxboro for the next several years.
Then, came the Coronavirus (on brand for 2020). After Newton’s positive diagnosis on October 2nd, the Patriots season flipped head over heels. Eight total players landed on the Reserve/Covid-19 list as New England could barely get into its facility for team meetings, let alone for practice.
Since Newton's original Covid-19 diagnosis, four straight losses have followed for the Patriots, with Newton being under center in three of those four contests. In his first game back, he threw two interceptions in a 18-12 loss to the Denver Broncos. The following week, Newton was benched in the fourth quarter after throwing three interceptions, as the Patriots suffered a 33-6 loss to the 49ers — the worst home loss in Bill Belichick’s 21-year tenure as head coach.
All the positive talk about Newton from earlier in the season rapidly vanished. There were calls for Jarrett Stidham to take over, but Belichick made it clear Newton was the guy, explaining he’s their “best player [at quarterback]”.
Now sitting at 2-4, all eyes turned to a pivotal Week 8 matchup with the Buffalo Bills. A win would get the Patriots back in the hunt for the AFC East, while a loss would more than likely end their season. New England needed their quarterback from early in the year, and for the most part, that's what they got.
Playing with a cast of undrafted wide receivers and in terrible conditions, Newton played his best football since the Week 2 game against Seattle. Ignore whatever the box score suggests, Newton had his highest PFF grade, QBR, and EPA per dropback on Sunday since the Seattle game. The offense strung together back-to-back touchdown drives for the first time this season, and again drove into the red area for a potential game tying/go-ahead score before Newton fumbled with 37-seconds remaining, clinching a win for Buffalo.
It still wasn't perfect, but after two miserable performances, it was a positive step forward for Newton and the offense. Newton acknowledged the day will be remembered for his fumble, but he also noted his increased comfort in the offense.
“The optimistic thing about it is, I felt more comfortable yesterday and building off of things, working with Josh [McDaniels], working with Jedd [Fisch] and just going back to playing smart football,” Newton said Monday morning on WEEI’s The Greg Hill Show. “But just one play can just alter a person’s feel for the whole overall game and that’s just unfortunate, but that’s what this game is. Nobody cares how much you put in throughout the week, they just care about the end-of-the-week production...
“I feel like I’m getting better, I know I’m getting better and just the comfort in this offense is going to pop.”
As the halfway mark of 2020-21 NFL season is now behind us, the book remains unwritten on Newton in New England. After a promising start was derailed by the coronavirus, a bounce back Week 8 performance could be a sign of things to come.
With what appears to be a major offseason on the radar, Belichick will have to make a decision about whether or not to stick with Newton under center next season. The days of a $90 million extension appear long gone, but a strong second half of the season could net Newton another one- or two-year deal with the Patriots, or even a franchise tender for him to sign.
But if the idea of Newton returning is nixed, where would the Patriots go to improve? Whether or not you believe the offseason rumors about Stidham, his play on the field hasn't been impressive. The 2019 fourth-round pick has thrown four interceptions in 27 career pass attempts. Perhaps more experience would help, but Stidham has shown nothing to earn more playing time — let alone suggest he can be a viable starter.
Looking at the free agent market, there are not many enticing options. Dak Prescott (who will likely get franchise tagged) is the biggest name on the market, but the Patriots throwing a $35-plus million contract at him seems unlikely. Perhaps New England could look into a reunion with Jacoby Brissett or Jimmy Garoppolo (who is likely to hit the open market), or a resurgence project like Mitchell Trubisky, Dwayne Haskins, or Sam Darnold — neither seeming like a great option, though.
That leads them to the 2021 NFL Draft. Barring a mega-trade, the Patriots likely won't be in position to draft the consensus top-two quarterbacks on the board: Clemson’s Trevor Lawerence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields. As of now, it also seems unlikely that North Dakota State’s Trey Lance will be available when New England’s selection comes around. If New England wants to draft their next signal caller early in next years draft, they'll have to chose between players such as Alabama’s Mac Jones, Florida’s Kyle Trask, and BYU’s Zach Wilson.
If the Patriots do draft a quarterback at any point in the draft, the focus then shifts to will they be ready to step in and start immediately. Based on who should be available when New England has their choice, the answer is most likely no.
That leads us back to Newton. Unless the Patriots are comfortable letting Jarrett Stidham take the reins, they would be wise to work something out with Newton, especially if he continues to improve down the stretch. The Patriots are projected to have over $60 million in cap space next offseason, a number that could approach $80 million if Stephon Gilmore is traded, which would allow them to then surround Newton with more talent on the offensive side of the ball.
With more talent at his disposal, a full-season of experience running the offense, and what projects to be a full, normal offseason, Newton being under center would give the Patriots the best chance to win in 2021. If he can build off his Week 8 performance against Buffalo — and starts taking care of the football — a new contract should be waiting for him right here in Foxboro.
Who do you think should be the Patriots’ quarterback next season? Leave a comment below or let me know on Twitter @iambrianhines.