If the news of Cam Newton’s new contract with the New England Patriots taught you anything Friday, it’s that the devil’s in the details.
Initial reports suggested Newton’s deal was worth almost $14 million, which seemed comically steep for a quarterback who was one of the NFL’s worst starters in 2020. Of course, as most people quickly deduced, Newton’s deal was worth up to — two very important words as it relates to NFL contracts — $14 million including incentives.
We took a look at the closest quarterback cap hits of the last 10 years to see what New England can realistically expect out of Newton in 2021.
Since 2011, 32 veteran quarterbacks have carried a cap hit between 2.52 percent and 3.52 percent of the overall NFL salary cap in a season. As part of this exercise, we eliminated quarterbacks on rookie contracts, including players like Colin Kaepernick in 2014 and Ryan Tannehill in 2015 who had signed extensions and raised the final years of their rookie deals into that percentage threshold.
What we’re left with are a lot of the names of top backups and fringe starters you might expect like Chase Daniel, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Nick Foles, Josh McCown, Chad Henne and the like (they’re all listed at the bottom of this page).
Only eight of those 32 quarterbacks started over half of their teams’ games, and 11 of them didn’t start a single game in that given season. Only four of those 32 quarterbacks led their teams to winning records in that given season. Only three of the 32 QBs both started over half of their games and had a winning record: Alex Smith with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2014 (8-7), Kyle Orton in 2014 with the Buffalo Bills (7-5) and Carson Palmer in 2013 with the Arizona Cardinals (10-6). Smith only counts because of the structure of his contract that saw him carry a low cap hit in the first year of a lengthy contract extension.
Overall, those 32 quarterbacks led their teams to a 61-93 record (.396). Fitzpatrick’s 2019 season with the Miami Dolphins ($5.5 million cap hit, 2.8 percent) was statistically the best. He completed 62 percent of his passes for 3,529 yards with 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions for an 85.5 passer rating and 68.3 QBR.
The closest comp for Newton on this list is Palmer in 2012 with the Oakland Raiders ($3.16 million, 2.6 percent) and 2013 with the Cardinals ($4 million, 3.2 percent). Those were Palmer’s 33- and 34-year-old seasons. He was the 2003 No. 1 overall pick and had previously been named to Pro Bowls within the last six seasons.
Newton will be slightly younger at 32 years old, but he was the 2011 No. 1 overall pick and is six years removed from his last Pro Bowl.
Palmer certainly wasn’t great in 2012 or 2013, but he led the Cardinals to a winning record and was back to being a Pro Bowl selection two years later in 2015 when he led Arizona to a 13-3 record. Palmer essentially serves as proof that a quarterback of Newton’s caliber can turn his career around after signing a contract typically saved for a backup or fringe starter.
Still, Palmer is the exception to the rule. And the expectation for a quarterback earning just three percent of the cap is to be a backup. Those 32 quarterbacks averaged only five starts per season.
There are two ways to look at this for the Patriots in 2021:
1. If Newton starts more than five games in 2021, he’s exceeding the expectations of his contract and will therefore be a good value for New England.
2. Expectations should not be high for Newton given the contract that he was forced to accept with the Patriots in 2021. Based on the history of these 32 players, New England will be fortunate if Newton starts more than five games or leads the Patriots a 7-9 record or better.
It would not be surprising if the Patriots chose to supplement their quarterback room with either another veteran or a draft pick. Jarrett Stidham and Jake Dolegala are the only other quarterbacks on the team, and New England should still have over $50 million in salary-cap space. The most logical move would be for the Patriots to take a quarterback in the first or second round of the 2021 NFL Draft. If New England can find another veteran quarterback on a value deal like Marcus Mariota, Jimmy Garoppolo or Gardner Minshew, that could be another option to add competition at the position.
Here is every veteran quarterback of the last 10 years to play with a cap hit worth 2.52-to-3.52 percent of the NFL salary cap:
Nick Foles, Chicago Bears: nine games, 2-5 record, 202-of-312, 64.7%, 1,852 yards, 10 TDs, 8 INTs, 80.8 passer rating, 43.3 QBR
Chase Daniel, Chicago Bears: three games, 0-1 record, 45-of-64, 70.3%, 264 yards, TD, two INTs, 91.6 passer rating, 59.6 QBR
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Miami Dolphins: 14 games, 5-8 record, 311-of-502, 62%, 3,529 yards, 20 TDs, 13 INTs, 85.5 passer rating, 68.3 QBR
Joe Flacco, Denver Broncos: 8 games, 2-6 record, 171-of-262, 65.3%, 1,822 yards, six TDs, 5 INTs, 85.1 passer rating, 50.8 QBR
Matt Schaub, Atlanta Falcons: 3 games, 5-of-7, 71.4%, 20 yards, 74.1 passer rating, 63.2 QBR
Drew Stanton, Arizona Cardinals: 5 games, 3-1 record, 79-of-159, 49.7%, 894 yards, six TDs, five INTs, 66.4 passer rating, 39.5 QBR
Robert Griffin III, Cleveland Browns: five games, 1-4 record, 87-of-147, 59.2%, 886 yards, two TDs, three INTs, 72.5 passer rating, 39.1 QBR; 31 carries, 190 yards, two TDs
Josh McCown, Cleveland Browns: five games, 0-3 record, 90-of-165, 54.5%, 1,100, six TDs, six INTs, 72.3 passer rating, 30.8 QBR
Chase Daniel, Philadelphia Eagles: one game, 1-of-1, 100%, 16 yards, 118.7 passer rating, 99.5 QBR
Chad Henne, Jacksonville Jaguars: one game, no stats
Chase Daniel, Kansas City Chiefs: two games, 2-of-2, 100%, 4 yards, 79.2 passer rating, 92.4 QBR
Nick Foles, St. Louis Rams: 11 games, 4-7 record, 190-of-337, 56.4%, 2,052, seven TDs, 10 INTs, 69 passer rating, 28.9 QBR
Josh McCown, Cleveland Browns: eight games, 1-7 record, 186-of-292, 63.7%, 2,109 yards, 12 TDs, 4 INTs, 93.3 passer rating, 52.9 QBR
Drew Stanton, Arizona Cardinals: seven games, 11-25, 44%, 104 yards, two INTs, 22.7 passer rating, 10.4 QBR
Mark Sanchez, Philadelphia Eagles: four games, 0-2 record, 59-of-91, 64.8%, 616 yards, four TDs, four INTs, 80.7 passer rating, 28.1 QBR
Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs: 15 games, 8-7 record, 303-of-464, 65.3%, 3,265 yards, 18 TDs, six INTs, 93.4 passer rating, 51.7 QBR
Kyle Orton, Buffalo Bills: 12 games, 7-5 record, 287-of-447, 64.2%, 3,018, 18 TDs, 10 INTs, 87.8 passer rating, 43.9 QBR
Michael Vick, New York Jets: 10 games, 1-2 record, 64-of-121, 52.9%, 604 yards, three TDs, two INTs, 68.3 passer rating, 21.4 QBR, 26 carries, 153 yards
Matt Hasselbeck, Indianapolis Colts: four games, 30-of-44, 68.2%, 301 yards, two TDs, 102.6 passer rating, 57.9 QBR
Chase Daniel, Kansas City Chiefs: three games, 1-0 record, 16-of-28, 57.1%, 157 yards, 73.1 passer rating, 30 QBR
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Houston Texans: 12 games, 6-6 record, 197-of-312, 63.1%, 2,483 yards, 17 TDs, eight INTs, 95.3 passer rating, 61.1 QBR
Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals: 16 games, 10-6 record, 362-of-572, 63.3%, 4,274 yards, 24 TDs, 22 INTs, 83.9 passer rating, 54 QBR
Matt Cassel, Minnesota Vikings: nine games, 3-3 record, 153-of-254, 60.2%, 1,807 yards, 11 TDs, nine INTs, 81.6 passer rating, 52.3 QBR
Matt Hasselbeck, Indianapolis Colts: three games, 7-of-12, 58.3%, 130 yards, INT, 61.1 passer rating, 25 QBR
Shaun Hill, Detroit Lions: one game, no stats
Matt Flynn, Seattle Seahawks: three games, 5-of-9, 55.6%, 79.9 passer rating, 23.1 QBR
Jason Campbell, Chicago Bears: six games, 0-1 record, 32-of-51, 62.7%, 265 yards, two TDs, two INTs, 72.8 passer rating, 9.2 QBR
Matt Moore, Miami Dolphins: two games, 11-of-19, 57.9%, 131 yards, TD, 96.6 passer rating, 62 QBR
Carson Palmer, Oakland Raiders: 15 games, 4-11 record, 345-of-565, 61.1%, 4,018 yards, 22 TDs, 14 INTs, 85.3 passer rating, 46.6 QBR
Kevin Kolb, Arizona Cardinals: nine games, 3-6 record, 146-of-253, 57.7%, 1,955 yards, nine TDs, eight INTs, 81.1 passer rating, 33.3 QBR
Charlie Whitehurst, Seattle Seahawks: three games, 0-2 record, 27-of-56, 48.2%, 298 yards, TD, INT, 62.9 passer rating, 19.7 QBR
Shaun Hill, Detroit Lions: two games, 2-of-3, 66.7%, 33 yards, 103.5 passer rating, 66 QBR