Leading up to the start of NFL free agency, NESN.com will break down the New England Patriots’ top potential veteran quarterback options. Next up: Cam Newton.
2021 status: Unrestricted free agent
2020 stats: 242 of 348 (65.8 percent), 2,657 yards, eight touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 7.2 yards per attempt, 82.9 passer rating, 47.0 QBR; 137 carries, 592 yards, 12 touchdowns (15 games)
Pros: The case for running it back with Newton after a lackluster 2020 campaign focuses on the circumstances and infrastructure surrounding him.
The fact that he had a limited timeframe (and no offseason workouts or preseason games) to learn a notoriously complex offense after signing in early July. That he tested positive for COVID-19 a month into the season and missed nearly two full weeks of practice, sapping any early momentum he had built. That New England’s collection of receivers and tight ends was arguably the NFL’s weakest — a diminished version of the group Tom Brady struggled with one year earlier.
Though he ranked toward the bottom of the NFL in most passing categories, Newton did prove he’s still a weapon as a ball-carrier — his 12 rushing touchdowns were tied for fourth-most in the league — and garnered rave reviews from coaches for his work ethic and accountability.
Give him a full offseason and a more talented group of pass-catchers, the argument goes, and he’s bound to be better than he was in 2020. Right?
Newton also still carries a level of popularity and cachet among players that could make him a bigger draw for free agents than, say, Marcus Mariota or Jacoby Brissett. He’d probably be relatively inexpensive, too.
Asked during a recent appearance on the “I AM ATHLETE” podcast whether he’d be open to re-signing with the Patriots, Newton emphatically replied: “Hell yes.”
Cons: To put it bluntly, Newton was one of the worst passers in the NFL in 2020, and New England’s offense was, for long stretches of the season, a borderline unwatchable mess with him behind center.
The Patriots ranked 27th in total offense and scoring offense despite boasting one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks. They were 23nd in first downs per game, Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA and percent of offensive drives that resulted in a touchdown or field goal. Their 20.4 points-per-game average was the franchise’s worst since 2000. Only the two New York teams scored fewer offensive touchdowns.
As for Newton himself, he threw more interceptions (10) than touchdown passes (eight, three of which came in Week 17) over his 15 starts. He had more games with fewer than 125 passing yards (six) than he had with more than 200 (five, including just two with 300-plus). He was benched three times. He ranked 23rd or worse in passer rating (28th), QBR (30th), EPA/play (24th), CPOE (24th), air yards (26th), DYAR (31st), DVOA (31st) and Pro Football Focus grade (23rd).
(For an explainer on those advanced stats, click here.)
Three of Newton’s four most productive passing performances (at Jets, at Texans, vs. Jets) came against bottom-five pass defenses by DVOA. He also shredded a Seattle D that looked like one of the league’s worst before stabilizing midseason.
Again, Newton wasn’t solely to blame for New England’s offensive nosedive. But his deficiencies as a passer were readily apparent, with his inconsistent mechanics causing passes to sail over receiver’s heads or bounce at their feet. Among 35 qualified QBs, Newton had the seventh-lowest “on-target” percentage and the fifth-highest “bad throw” rate, according to Pro Football Reference.
It also was concerning that several of Newton’s worst performances came during the second half of the season, at a time when his grasp of the offense should have improved.
It’s hard to win in the modern NFL without a viable passing game, and based on what we saw from Newton this past season, even more time in the system and improved weapons might not be enough to fix these problems.
Verdict: Based on social media reaction in recent weeks, a Newton return would anger a significant portion of the Patriots’ fanbase. But it remains a realistic possibility.
More Potential Patriots QBs: Dak Prescott