The New England Patriots are seven games into the Cam Newton era. All signs point to that experiment ending after one season, if not sooner.
Newton has been one of the worst statistical quarterbacks in the NFL in 2020. Heading into Week 9, he’s 31st in passer rating, 29th in QBR, 32nd in interception rate, 36th in touchdown passes.
He’s faced some unfavorable circumstances, to be sure, from having to learn a notoriously complex offense on the fly to missing nearly two full weeks of practice after testing positive for COVID-19. Through it all, his attitude and work ethic have been exemplary. No one’s disputing that.
But the results are what they are.
The Patriots are 2-5 this season and haven’t won a game since September. Newton has fallen short in all three of his late-game comeback bids, the latest of which ended with his devastating red-zone fumble last Sunday in Buffalo. His mechanics are a mess, his timing way off and his accuracy scattershot. He’s already been benched once.
Unless the 31-year-old former NFL MVP shows significant and sustained improvement over the second half of the season, the odds of him entering 2021 as New England’s starting QB are low.
And if Newton, who is on a one-year contract, is not the Patriots’ signal-caller of the near future, then who is?
The first candidate we should mention is Jarrett Stidham, if only because he still has two years remaining on his rookie contract. Stidham has yet to start a game at the NFL level — and enjoy the full week of starter’s reps that comes with that — so it’s tough to make any definitive conclusions about his quarterbacking competency.
But what we’ve seen so far has not been pretty. Stidham’s numbers over his two relief appearances this season: 11-for-23 (47.8 percent), 124 yards (5.4 per attempt), one touchdown, three interceptions. He also tossed one garbage-time interception last season, upping his career total to four picks on 27 pass attempts. That comes out to an interception rate of 14.8 percent, the fifth-worst mark since the AFL-NFL merger among players with at least 27 career attempts. The four who rank below him all played in the 1970s or ’80s.
Perhaps Stidham can change that narrative if he gets the chance to start a few games this season. But the fact Bill Belichick hasn’t turned to him already amid Newton’s struggles speaks volumes.
If neither Newton nor Stidham is the answer, the Patriots will need to look outside of the organization. The crop of 2021 free agents is not particularly inspiring — the injured Dak Prescott is the clear headliner, followed by the likes of Jacoby Brissett, Jameis Winston, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tyrod Taylor and soon-to-be 40-year-old Philip Rivers — but there are a few intriguing veterans who could be reaching the end of the line with their current teams.
Atop that list is a player Patriots fans know well: Jimmy Garoppolo.
Though he quarterbacked the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl last season, Tom Brady’s former backup has not lived up to his five-year, $137.5 million contract. Garoppolo has limited the overall effectiveness of Kyle Shanahan’s QB-friendly offense and has dealt with a steady stream of injuries, including a high ankle sprain that’s expected to sideline him for at least the next four to six weeks.
That fragility is concerning, especially for a Patriots team that rarely needed to worry about Brady’s availability. And Garoppolo is not worth the $24.1 million salary he’s set to earn next season. But the structure of his contract allows the 49ers to easily cut him this offseason if they want to move on and cannot find a willing trade partner.
In that scenario, it’s not hard to envision Belichick inviting Garoppolo back to Foxboro, assuming the QB would be willing to sign a more affordable deal. A trade also could work if San Francisco would accept a relatively low draft pick and Garoppolo is agreeable to a pay cut.
Another trade option who’s been mentioned this week, with the Patriots preparing to face the winless New York Jets, is Sam Darnold.
The 2018 third overall pick had enjoyed little success at the NFL level — statistically, he’s been the worst starting QB in the league this season — but he’s shown enough promise to stoke the idea that he might become a capable passer if freed from the anchor that is Adam Gase.
With the Jets on track to draft Trevor Lawrence or another premier QB prospect, Darnold could be on the trade block this spring. Perhaps Josh McDaniels would be interested in grooming a quarterback who was a top-five pick just three years earlier.
That’s a trade we simply cannot see the Jets making, however. Yes, the longtime AFC East rivals have been more willing to deal in recent years (see: Demaryius Thomas, the draft pick that produced Dalton Keene). But a potential franchise QB is far different from a depth receiver or mid-round draft pick. General manager Joe Douglas would be rightfully lambasted if Darnold is dealt to New England and solves the Patriots’ quarterback conundrum.
More experienced trade candidates include Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford and — wouldn’t this be a fun one? — Aaron Rodgers. Each of them would consume a far more significant portion of New England’s newfound salary cap space.
If the Patriots opt to address this need in the 2021 NFL Draft, the top-flight options would be Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, all of whom have top-10 pick potential.
We expect New England to be competitive enough down the stretch that Lawrence — the consensus No. 1 prospect — will be out of reach, but Fields or Lance could be in play. The second tier of draft-eligible QBs includes BYU’s Zach Wilson (who looked excellent Friday night in a rout of Boise State), Alabama’s Mac Jones and Florida’s Kyle Trask.
With plenty of needs elsewhere on their roster, the Patriots’ best course of action might be to combine these two approaches, adding a veteran who won’t break the bank while also drafting a QB in the early rounds.
Can Newton or Stidham be part of the solution? They’ll need to prove it over the next two months.