Playing alongside a sub-par supporting cast and having to learn one of the league’s most difficult offensive systems on the fly — all while also missing time after a positive Coronavirus test — Cam Newton ended last season as one of the least efficient starting quarterbacks in football. He did complete two thirds of his throws, but gained a mere 2,657 passing yards while tossing 8 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Despite his disappointing numbers, the New England Patriots decided to give Newton another chance heading into 2021. They re-signed him to an incentive-laden one-year contract before the start of free agency, thus allowing him to prove his value to the organization (and the rest of the NFL) once more.
The circumstances certainly appear to be more favorable for him this time around. Not only does Newton have a year of experience in the Patriots’ system under his belt now and is already working out with some of his teammates, he also will get to work with an improved group of pass catchers surrounding him.
New England, after all, went on a shopping spree once free agency began.
The team signed the top two tight ends available on the open market this year when it brought in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, and also added wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. Together with the team’s leading receivers of the last two years — Julian Edelman and Jakobi Meyers — as well as former first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry they will form the core of the Patriots’ passing game personnel this season.
As far as the quarterback position and Newton’s role as the currently projected starter are concerned, the new additions all had nothing but positives to say.
“His work ethic, that’s the main thing that stands out to me,” said Kendrick Bourne about Newton. “Everything he’s been through these last few years. Just how he works that always takes over everything. He’s earned his opportunities, he’s earned his contract this year. I know he’s going to have an awesome year. I’m just excited to play with him.
“I told him, ‘I’ve been watching you since I was a young guy. It’s an honor to just play with you, man, pick your brain and get out there with you. And help you get better. I know you’re going to help me get better.’”
Bourne arrived in New England after four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. A former undrafted free agent, who has 143 receptions, 1,857 yards and 12 touchdowns on his career résumé, the 25-year-old will help rebuilt a Patriots wide receiver room that was amongst the weakest in football last season.
While his eventual role has yet to be determined, Bourne’s accomplishments as an NFL-level wide receiver speak for themselves — and make him the third most productive player on the Patriots’ current wide receiver depth chart behind former Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman and fellow free agency acquisition Nelson Agholor.
Agholor himself also spoke highly about Newton, despite the long-time Carolina Panthers QB struggling in 2020.
“Cam Newton is a great quarterback,” said Agholor. “I think he’s a league MVP for a reason, and I know he can do whatever needs to be done. For me, it’s just getting out there and practicing with him. And I’m just excited; I’m exciting to work with him, I’m excited to grow. I know he’s going to push me. I also feel like Coach McDaniels is going to put us in position.”
Whereas Bourne signed a three-year, $15 million contract, Agholor was added on a two-year pact with a maximum value of $22 million — arguably the most polarizing deals handed out by New England over the last two weeks. Still, the 27-year-old is projected to play a sizable role within the Patriots’ passing attack: not only does he have experience and first-round pedigree, he also was the league’s top deep threat a year ago.
Among the NFL’s 107 players who caught more than 40 passes in 2020, no one had a higher yards-per-catch average than Agholor’s 18.7. New England will hope that he can build on this number and continue the momentum he established in his lone season with the Las Vegas Raiders.
Playing in an offense with two top-tier tight ends should only help.
Those two — Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry — also shared their thoughts about Newton since arriving in New England, albeit in a slightly different fashion.
“I am. I am very excited,” said Henry when asked about working with the veteran quarterback.
Jonnu Smith gave a more extensive answer, meanwhile, and talked about the first conversation the two men had after his signing became official.
“It was a great conversation, he gave me a warm welcome,” Smith said. “He’s a hell of a guy. That was the first time I got to meet him. Still haven’t had the opportunity to meet him in person, but I got the chance to talk to him on the phone for a while and we had a really good conversation. He’s competitive, I’ve known that since I watched him in college. I’m just excited to be able to go out there and compete with each other.”
No matter how many words each answer had, there is one thing that unites the Patriots’ newest offensive weapons: they signed with the Patriots regardless of the questions at the quarterback position. Despite some pre-free agency speculation that New England would not be an attractive destination — speculation that primarily originated on Boston’s notorious sports talk radio — the club was therefore able to bring some of the most highly-coveted free agent pass catchers in.
For Kendrick Bourne, the quarterback position was apparently not a deciding factor at all.
“I really didn’t think about the quarterback situation; it’s more the organization, who they are,” he said during his introductory media conference call. “I know they’re thinking about their future also, but I believe in Cam Newton at the end of the day. I didn’t go looking around who’s the starting quarterback here. The NFL’s the NFL, I believe everybody’s good. I just think it takes that right place, right time, right coaching and stuff like that.”
Bourne did not just express confidence in Newton himself, but also in the Patriots’ decision making process (one that obviously led to him being signed as well).
“New England knows what they’re doing,” he said. “They picked Cam for a reason; they believe in him. One-year deal, it is what it is. All it takes is one year to become who you want to be. I think that he has another opportunity and that’s all that matters. I think he’s going to ball out with the weapons they brought in, the help now.
“It was just one of those rebuilding years that they went through [in 2020], and he was a part of it. People may say he may not look this good, he looked bad, or whatever it may be. But now he has some help, and they know what they’re putting around him, which is awesome. I just want to be a part of five touchdowns, 10 touchdowns for him and change the narrative.”
Changing the narrative will be a main focus in New England this year — from Newton’s status as a starting-caliber quarterback, to Tom Brady still looming large over the organization’s perception even a year after his departure. Bourne, Agholor, Smith and Henry will play a pivotal role in this process.