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Patriots 2021 free agency profile: Keeping Cam Newton might be in New England’s best interest

Related: Patriots free agency profile: WR Donte Moncrief

Arizona Cardinals v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Coming off a disappointing 2020 campaign, the New England Patriots are headed into a pivotal offseason: they need to rebuild a roster that went just 7-9 last year and is in need of some major upgrades across the board. Part of those could be bringing back the players scheduled to enter free agency later this month — and there are quite a few of them.

All in all, 26 players that were with New England in one way last season are in need of a new contract. Among them is quarterback Cam Newton, who is an unrestricted free agent and will therefore hit the open market on March 17.

Hard facts

Name: Cam Newton

Position: Quarterback

Jersey number: 1

Opening day age: 32

Size: 6-foot-5, 245 pounds

Contract status: Unrestricted free agent

Experience

What is his experience? Following a college career that started at the University of Florida and took him to Auburn via Blinn College, Newton was selected first overall by the Carolina Panthers in the 2011 NFL draft. The then-reigning Heisman Trophy winner instantly made an impact on the organization by earning the starting quarterback job during his first training camp and never looking back: an electrifying athlete, Newton was named the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year and voted to his first Pro Bowl.

His first year with the Panthers was a sign of things to come. Over the eight years that followed, Newton became a poster child for the modern NFL QB: a threat not just due to his arm but with his legs as well, he continuously posted impressive numbers both through the air and on the ground. Never was that more apparent than during his 2015 campaign, when he not only led Carolina to a 15-1 record and a berth in the Super Bowl but was also named the league’s MVP after accounting for 4,473 yards and 45 touchdowns.

Newton struggled with injuries during his last few years in Carolina, but his track record was still impressive: he appeared in 125 regular season and seven playoff contests as a Panther, and completed 2,505 of 4,204 passing attempts (59.6%) for 30,862 yards, 192 touchdowns and 115 interceptions. Furthermore, he carried the football 997 times for 5,064 yards and 60 more scores. Despite his success, however, the organization decided to part ways with its long-time starting quarterback in 2020 — opening the door for him to join the Patriots.

What did his 2020 season look like? After ending back-to-back seasons on injured reserve and playing just two games in 2019, the Panthers gave Newton’s camp permission to find a trade partner in the offseason. When none was found, they parted ways with their franchise quarterback of the last nine years to save $19.1 million in salary cap space. The former league MVP, meanwhile, entered the open market — and it took more than three months before he found a new team and signed his next contract.

In early July, however, Newton agreed to sign an incentive-laden one-year contract with the Patriots to compete for their vacant starting quarterback position. Going against second-year man Jarrett Stidham and veteran journeyman Brian Hoyer, Newton established himself as the frontrunner rather early in training camp before eventually being named New England’s QB1 ahead of the regular season opener versus the Miami Dolphins — a game that saw Newton play some encouraging football as a dual-threat quarterback.

While the veteran looked good early on during his first season as a Patriot, his 2020 campaign took a turn for the worse in early October: Newton became the first member of the team to be sent to the new Reserve/Covid-19 list when he tested positive for the Coronavirus ahead of a road game versus the Kansas City Chiefs. He only missed one game after his diagnosis, but failed to carry his early-season momentum into the next few weeks and never quite returned to the same levels of play he showed between Weeks 1 and 3.

Accordingly, Newton ended his 2020 season as one of the least efficient quarterbacks in all of football. While he did complete 242 of 368 pass attempts for a completion rate of 65.8 percent, he only gained 2,657 yards through the air while throwing just 8 touchdowns compared to 10 interceptions. His ball security issues were not limited to passes picked off by the defense: Newton also fumbled the football six times as a runner; only one of them was lost but it was a costly one that ended New England’s game in Buffalo.

Not all of the blame for New England’s offensive struggles can fully be placed on him, though. His supporting cast was also not up to NFL standards — Jakobi Meyers and Damiere Byrd were solid but are better suited for rotational roles instead of being used as top-two wide receivers; N’Keal Harry was inconsistent and struggled with injury; Julian Edelman played just five games alongside him before being sent to IR; the tight end position was a non-factor all year — while he did not have the benefit of a full offseason with the club.

Despite all of his struggles during the 2020 season, however, not all was negative for Newton. He was quite productive running the football either on designed carries or improvisational plays: not counting kneel-downs, he carried the football 127 times for 602 yards — an average of 4.7 yards per carry — as well as 12 touchdowns. He also took on an active role as a leader and was voted a captain not even two months after his arrival, and was able to play an entire season again without suffering any major injuries.

Free agency preview

What is his contract history? The first overall pick of the 2011 draft, Newton signed a four-year, $22 million contract with the Panthers. After his fourth season in the league, the two sides agreed on a five-year, $103.8 million extension that would have kept the quarterback in Carolina through 2020. Newton was released before the final year of the deal, however, and subsequently joined the Patriots on a one-year pact with a base value of $1.75 million. All in all, his contractual career earnings are estimated at roughly $125 million by Over the Cap.

Which teams might be in the running? Newton being one of the statistically worst quarterbacks in football last season will likely hurt his chances of finding another starting gig. While the Patriots could bring him back as a bridge option, a majority of teams might see him as little more than a backup: the Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles or Washington Football Team might see some value in him as a QB2 with considerable experience and the ability to start if need be.

Why should he be expected back? Newton joined a difficult situation in 2020 but could be a more effective quarterback with the Patriots if surrounded with a better supporting cast and given more opportunities to learn the system during the offseason. He did have his moments at times last season, after all, and could use those as a foundation to build upon. But even if New England’s preferred outcome is not to have him as the starter, he could still have value as a quarterback a) capable of doing just that, b) offering experience as a backup, and c) offering guidance for his eventual successor.

Why should he be expected to leave? While Newton may still see himself as a starting-caliber quarterback in the NFL, the Patriots will have to make that call when it comes to his outlook with the club. There is a chance they value him differently, and will only bring him back on their own terms — i.e. at a rate below what other teams might pay him to serve as a backup. New England’s plans at the most important position in football remain in the dark right now, but Newton not being part of them is not unrealistic.

What is his projected free agency outcome? Even though he struggled in 2020 and is no longer the same impressive dual-threat quarterback he was earlier in his career, the Patriots might still be open to bringing Newton back on another one-year contract — something he would apparently be interested in as well. He knows the system, is well respected within the locker room, and could hold down the fort until the next franchise quarterback, who is likely coming via the draft, is ready to take over. A reunion might therefore be in the best interest for both parties, even though it may not be popular around New England.