When Tom Brady left the New England Patriots last offseason, the team did not have a clear-cut replacement on the roster. Second-year man Jarrett Stidham appeared to initially be the front runner, and he was later joined by veteran free agent Brian Hoyer as well as rookie free agents Brian Lewerke and J’Mar Smith.
The arrival of Cam Newton a month before training camp changed everything. The former league MVP, who had been released by the Carolina Panthers earlier that offseason, joined the Patriots on a one-year contract. While he was not guaranteed the starting spot upon his arrival, he very much established himself as the frontrunner early into camp and never looked back.
Newton eventually started 15 of the Patriots’ 16 games during the 2020 season, but he was one of the statistically worst passers in football throughout the year. The circumstances did not help; he was diagnosed with Covid-19, had to learn the offense on the fly, and had to play alongside one of the worst skill position groups in football. New England therefore decided to give him another chance and re-signed him on another one-year pact before the start of free agency.
However, the team brought some competition in. Let’s get ready for the Cam Newton versus Mac Jones quarterback battle.
QB Cam Newton, QB Mac Jones, QB Jarrett Stidham, QB Brian Hoyer
While the Patriots have four quarterbacks currently under contract, the expectation is that only two of them will battle for the starting position this summer: veteran Cam Newton and rookie Mac Jones.
Newton is the most established quarterback on New England’s roster, entering his eleventh season in the NFL. He has started a total of 146 regular season and playoff games over the course of his career, helped he Panthers reach a Super Bowl, and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2015. He also beat out Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer last year to earn the starting quarterback role.
Jones, on the other hand, only arrived in the NFL three months ago. The 15th overall selection in this year’s draft, he is the future at the Patriots’ quarterback position. For him to also become the present, however, he will have to continue building on the momentum he created during offseason workouts; Jones looked like a legitimate contender during the spring even though the setting was obviously far less competitive than what he will encounter in training camp and during preseason.
As far as Stidham and Hoyer are concerned, they will likely battle for the third spot on the depth chart behind Newton and Jones. Stidham opening camp on the physically unable to perform list obviously does not help him, though.
The deciding factors
Decision making: While even he was not immune to the occasional error, Brady is as good as any quarterback in football when it comes to taking care of the football and making sound decisions on a play-to-play basis. This approach fits perfectly with what the team wants to accomplish on offense: control the ball and the pace of the game, while limiting opportunities for the opponent. This plan is closely tied to making the right calls, and even with Brady no longer in the fold will not change. Newton was up and down in this area during the 2020 season, while Jones showed some superb decision making skills during his college career at Alabama.
Football IQ: The Patriots’ offensive system is notorious for being one of the most complex in the NFL, but it worked because of Brady’s abilities to master it: he is one of the most intelligent quarterbacks the league has ever seen, and it showed on the field. There was no coverage he could not dissect, no blitz package he had not seen before either on film or in action. While a lot of this has to do with experience — something Jones obviously lacks compared to Newton — New England’s next quarterback will have to be able to use his mind and football IQ to lead the offense regardless of circumstances.
Fundamentals and technique: You can be the smartest guy on the field, but if you do not have the proper fundamentals you will still not find plenty of success. Whether it is footwork, hip movements or throwing motion, New England’s starting quarterback will have to show that he can successfully apply his technique no matter the situation. Newton’s fundamentals were inconsistent at times last year, which led to him reportedly trying to “rebuild” some of them this offseason.
Consistency: When Brady announced his decision to leave the Patriots in mid-March, head coach Bill Belichick released a statement in which he praised, among other things, the future Hall of Famer’s consistency. Being able to play on the same high level play after play, drive after drive, and game after game is what made Brady the player he was during his time in New England — and it is also something that Newton failed to show as the Patriots’ starter last season. Now playing with one year of experience under his belt and alongside a much improved supporting cast, he will have to improve this area of his game to stay ahead of the competition.
Leadership and poise: The quarterback position is the most important in the game, and its importance goes beyond touching and distributing the football on every offensive play. Quarterbacks also need to be able to rally the troops around them, and to show the proper poise. Newton was very much able to do that last year, and the fact that he was voted a captain a mere two months after his arrival speaks for itself. Leadership alone won’t help him win the race for the starting gig, but it puts pressure on the other QBs to follow his example.
Mac Jones looked impressive during voluntary offseason workouts and mandatory minicamp, and will get plenty of chances to gain some valuable experience during training camp and develop a chemistry with his teammates. As noted above, there is no question he will be the Patriots’ quarterback of the future.
As far as the upcoming season is concerned, however, Cam Newton should still be seen as the frontrunner at this point in the process. Sure, Jones outperformed him at times during the spring, but until live bullets start flying there is no telling how the youngster will perform in a more competitive setting. Accordingly, the veteran is the safer projection heading into 2021.
Obviously, though, that does not mean an upset cannot be possible. Head coach Bill Belichick will go with the hot hand, even if that means throwing the rookie into the fire early and giving him every chance to earn the starting position.
All we know is that the competition between him and Newton — and to a lesser degree Stidham and Hoyer as well — will be one of the most exciting New England has seen in recent years.