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Patriots 2021 roster breakdown: Will Cam Newton hold onto the starting quarterback job this year?

Related: Quarterback guru Tom House is confident Cam Newton ‘will throw the football better this year’

Las Vegas Raiders v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

With the NFL Draft in the rear-view mirror and voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”

The team currently has 85 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.

Today, the series kicks off with the lowest jersey number currently issued — that of quarterback Cam Newton.

Hard facts

Name: Cam Newton

Position: Quarterback

Jersey number: 1

Opening day age: 32

Size: 6-foot-5, 245 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 UFA)

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 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 previous 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 a 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 contest after his diagnosis, but failed to carry his early-season momentum into the next few games 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 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; even though only one of them was lost it was a costly one that effectively ended New England’s game in Buffalo.

Not all of the blame for New England’s offensive struggles can fully be placed on his shoulders, though. His supporting cast was also not up to NFL standards: Jakobi Meyers and Damiere Byrd were solid but 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. He also did not have the benefit of a full offseason with the club.

Despite all of his struggles over the course of 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.

2021 preview

What is his projected role? Even though he is built like a tight end and has the career production of a bona fide running back, Newton is paid to play the quarterback position — and that is exactly what he will continue to do after re-signing with the Patriots during the offseason. While his role on the depth chart is yet to be determined, and he is coming off a statistically disappointing season, the 32-year-old offers an intriguing mix of experience and playmaking ability both as a passer and a runner.

What is his special teams value? As is the case with any other quarterback, Newton offers essentially no value in the kicking game. While he could fill a role as the emergency holder on field goal and extra point attempts behind punter Jake Bailey, it seems highly unlikely that the Patriots will use him on special teams regardless of his status on the QB depth chart. Newton has zero snaps in the game’s third phase on his résumé and this will not change in 2021, unless the team calls him on for a surprise third- or fourth-down punt.

Does he have positional versatility? For a quarterback, Newton offers some intriguing versatility. Not only can he successfully maneuver around the pocket, but he also is a threat on designed runs as well as RPO concepts or other misdirection plays that involve him carrying the football. His size and general athletic makeup also allow him to be moved elsewhere on trick plays: Newton has caught four passes over the course of his career — including two for 35 yards and a touchdown during the 2020 season.

What is his salary cap situation? Before the start of free agency, Newton re-signed with the Patriots on a one-year contract that carries a salary cap hit of $5.4 million. While that number alone ranks him in the lower tier for veteran starting-caliber quarterbacks, he can earn up to $13.6 million in case he hits every incentive in the deal. That appears to be unlikely, but him winning the starting gig would put him in a position to potentially increase his cash intake compared to his rather modest salary cap number.

What is his roster outlook? Even with the Patriots having selected fellow quarterback Mac Jones in the first round of the draft, Newton appears to be the frontrunner to earn the starting position this year — at least early on. After all, he already has a year of experience in the system under his belt while New England also made some massive upgrades at the offensive skill positions. Newton may no longer be the elite dual-threat quarterback he was earlier in his career, but the team did put him in a position to be a successful QB1 again. If he fails to take advantage, however, Jones will be waiting in the wings to take over.