There is a sentiment around the NFL, and it’s one I also have heard, that the New England Patriots could struggle to add pass-catchers in free agency because they don’t have an answer at quarterback.
Some have surmised that the Patriots must acquire a quarterback before free agency officially begins to solve this dilemma. That would mean, realistically, trading for a player like Marcus Mariota, Jimmy Garoppolo or Sam Darnold, signing Jacoby Brissett or Ryan Fitzpatrick early, or if you’re more of the fanciful type, swinging a deal for Deshaun Watson.
Watson? Yeah, he’d encourage some pass-catchers to come to New England on a contract similar to what teams with their quarterback situations settled are offering. Mariota, Garoppolo, Darnold, Brissett, Fitzpatrick or any of the other mid-tier quartarback options rumored to be on the move? Not so much. Those players wouldn’t really push the needle much more than Jarrett Stidham and Jake Dolegala. Wide receivers and tight ends aren’t banging down the door to play with Derek Carr’s backup.
Cam Newton, on the other hand, could be a slightly different story. Newton is a beloved teammate and despite his struggles last season is still extremely well-respected around the NFL. Just look at the reaction over social media to the video that went viral this weekend of a high school football player heckling Newton (he might be a tougher sell to teenage receivers). Watch the way Newton interacts with former players on the “I AM ATHLETE” podcast.
Younger players around the NFL look up to Newton. He still carries clout. He won a national championship, went No. 1 overall, earned an MVP and a trip to a Super Bowl in young players’ formative years. Newton is not Watson, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes, but he certainly has a stronger reputation among NFL players than the other quarterbacks in the conversation for New England.
Bring in Newton, and the Patriots might be able to build something around him. Trade for Mariota, and you might have to overpay to convince someone to play in New England.
There are obvious reasons why the Patriots would not want to bring Newton back. He struggled last season in a new system. There were times last year when his throws not only couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn but also a chicken in the hen house. The Patriots went 7-8 with Newton at the helm and struggled to finish close games. He completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 2,657 yards with eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions for an 82.9 passer rating while also carrying the ball 137 times for 592 yards with 12 touchdowns.
But also consider this: With weapons similar to the ones Newton was targeting in 2020, Tom Brady had a 60.8 completion percentage and 88 passer rating in 2019 (and the pass-catchers were actually better because Julian Edelman was healthy). With better receivers around him on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Brady had a 65.7 completion percentage and 102.2 passer rating in 2020.
Brady improved his QBR from 55.7 (17th) to 72.5 (ninth). His EPA (expected points added) per play jumped from .110 (14th) to .280 (sixth) and his CPOE (completion percentage over expected) went up from -2.5 percent (24th) to 2.5 percent (10th).
Newton’s QBR was 47 (30th) last season. His EPA per play was .063 (24th) and his CPOE was -1 (25th).
Now, don’t freak out. We are not saying Newton is or has the potential to be Brady. We’re simply stating that weapons matter and Brady and Newton had among the league’s worst in 2019 and 2020, respectively. And while this won’t be the ultimate deciding factor in who the Patriots add at quarterback, it would help if that QB could bring some better receivers with him. Brady took a massive jump from 2019 to 2020 because of the players around him. Newton could make a similar jump in 2021. If 2020 was the only season that mattered, then Carson Wentz would have been traded for a third-round pick and a conditional first- or second-rounder. He would have been outright cut.
This is not an endorsement for the Patriots to sign Newton. Many of the other names we mentioned above have played better than Newton in recent seasons. Signing Newton comes with the massive risk that he’s just as bad in 2021 as he was in 2020. But it might not matter who is playing quarterback if the Patriots can’t add to their pass-catching arsenal.