The eyes of the nation again turned to New England in 2020, but not for the usual reasons. Tom Brady left the New England Patriots, and the pressure fell on Bill Belichick to find his successor. Belichick went with former MVP Cam Newton, signing him to a one-year deal. Cam Newton provided excellent leadership for a Patriots offense that lacked direction, but New England missed the playoffs and had a losing NFL record for the first time since 2000.
Now, Newton is back. But this time, the Patriots seem determined to do it right.
Cam Newton’s new opportunity in New England
2020 wasn’t a banner year for Cam Newton or the New England Patriots offense. The Patriots finished 27th in the NFL in total yards and 30th in passing yards. Newton completed 242 of 368 pass attempts for 2,657 yards, 8 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions.
Newton’s passing stats are a bit misleading, as he, in fact, had 20 total touchdowns, with 12 of them coming on the ground. He also managed to run for 592 yards. Nevertheless, the numbers don’t lie about the Patriots’ passing game. It wasn’t pretty.[sv slug=”drizly”]
Newton himself appeared to be a step behind his MVP-caliber years with the Carolina Panthers.
He ranked 37th in PFN’s Offensive Value Metric at the QB position during the regular season, between Jared Goff and Alex Smith.
Newton’s 2020 supporting cast
However, the issues surrounding the New England offense may have centered more around Newton’s weapons than Newton himself. Newton’s top receiver was former undrafted free agent Jakobi Meyers, who caught 59 passes for 729 yards. Next up was Damiere Byrd, another former UDFA who had never caught more than 32 passes in a season since entering the league in 2016.
Beyond lacking consistent threats at WR, Cam Newton also lacked a No. 1 tight end. In his prime at Carolina, Newton gravitated toward the size and toughness of Greg Olsen. However, without that steely target up the middle, he struggled. New England’s top tight end in 2020 was Ryan Izzo, who caught 13 passes for 199 yards. Their two third-round rookies — Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene — totaled 5 catches and 55 yards.
Trey Wingo’s thoughts on the Patriots’ 2021 season
PFN Chief NFL Analyst Trey Wingo recently appeared on CBS Sports Radio’s “The Zach Gelb Show.” During his appearance, the first topic he discussed was Cam Newton and the New England Patriots. Wingo appeared to show some sympathy for Newton and his 2020 showing, emphasizing that 2020 was not a typical season. All NFL teams were impacted, but the Patriots were impacted more than most.
“Let’s talk first about what Cam was and wasn’t last year. There was no offseason, there was no minicamp, there was no OTAs, there was none of that. And then, as you said, he didn’t have a bunch of weapons. And by the way, early in the season, he did catch COVID. There were many players I’ve talked to that had it, and they were like, ‘Yeah, I [got] over it, but I never felt like myself for a long, long time. So there are a million reasons to look at 2020 Cam and New England and say we can probably do better.”
How do the Patriots’ weapons stack up in 2021?
The Patriots came into the 2021 offseason needing more top talent at skill positions above all else. Whether the Patriots acquired top-end talent at wide receiver in free agency is up for debate, but the Patriots no doubt approached their need for weapons with added urgency in the first week of the new NFL year. Wingo expressed this viewpoint in his recent radio appearance, noticing the dichotomy between the Patriots’ 2020 and 2021 outlooks.
“They went and got two tight ends in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. They got Nelson Agholor — and I get it, you’re hoping for the Raiders’ version of Nelson Agholor, not the Eagles’ version of Nelson Agholor. But I do think they’ve surrounded [Newton] with many more weapons than they had a year ago.
“I think the Patriots realized that, all along, 2021 was going to be the year they would try and rebound. They had a league-high eight players opt out, including players like [Patrick] Chung and Dont’a Hightower. You bring most of those players back, along with two new tight ends and what I believe is going to be a much better Cam Newton in 2021. I think the Patriots are going to be a very interesting team to watch.”
Would the Patriots trade up for a quarterback, even with Newton?
As much as the circumstances worked against Cam Newton in 2020, Trey Wingo reiterated during his radio appearance that the presence of Newton shouldn’t preclude the Patriots from making a move to select a quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Wingo referenced the relative dearth of quarterback talent coming in on a yearly basis. The premise is simple — teams have to be aggressive to get their long-term signal-callers because the demand is always higher than supply. Wingo states that Bill Belichick is very aware of that reality.
“I think he would [trade up for a QB]. All the signings that you’ve seen indicate they believe they’re going to get their quarterback of the future in this draft. We could potentially have as many as six go in the first round, if Kellen Mond does in fact find his way into the first round. It seems like every year, over the last six or seven years, we get more and more of them, but the hit rate doesn’t really change. Every year, we talk about all these quarterbacks, but at the end of the day, the results don’t really weigh out. This is a very difficult thing, finding the right QB. It’s a very inexact science.”
How situational factors impact the Patriots’ path forward at quarterback
The QB equation is indeed an inexact science. It’s something New England has been able to avoid for two decades. But now, they have no immediate answers. Trading up sounds like a way to find a solution, but it doesn’t guarantee success as Wingo states. And it’s easier said than done.
If the Patriots’ weapons were set in stone for Cam Newton, this move would be safer to make. However, the Patriots still need more top-end talent at receiver. Agholor showed promise as a deep threat in 2020, but it remains to be seen if he can be a consistent threat from year to year.
How do the free agency moves influence the Patriots’ board?
Kendrick Bourne, meanwhile, feels more like a supplementary threat who can provide depth and security. Even after paying almost $25 million annually on their receiving corps this offseason, the Patriots still lack proven dynamic talent. These moves might provide them with a bit of security in the NFL Draft, but they still shouldn’t settle for what they have at receiver. It’s still very much in play in Round 1.
Meanwhile, on defense, the Patriots could still add talent on the first and second levels. Additionally, Stephon Gilmore’s long-term future is uncertain at cornerback. Patrick Chung has retired, and many of their other defensive backs are aging as well.
There are still quite a few needs on the Patriots’ board. Trading up for a quarterback is a safer move when a team has relatively fewer needs. However, for New England, it could be a move that restricts their ability to support a rookie QB addition. There’s a chance Mac Jones is a bit more attainable for New England, and that’s a move they should consider. But even so, they’ll need to keep improving their supporting cast if they want to maximize success at QB.
What should the Patriots do with quarterback Cam Newton?
Since Cam Newton is on a one-year deal, the Patriots have some flexibility. They don’t have to commit to him for the long-term future. However, if they pick a quarterback in Round 1, it almost ensures that they move on from Newton in 2022 to give the rookie a chance to prove himself.
In that scenario, though, what if Newton performs better with a better supporting cast in 2021? Then you potentially use more resources than necessary at quarterback.
A safe move for New England would be to roll forward with Newton, use early-round picks on adding more weapons, then draft a developmental quarterback like Davis Mills, Jamie Newman, or Kellen Mond on Day 2 or early Day 3. That way, the Patriots can commit to Newton in the short-term and give him a chance to succeed without prematurely tying their fate to a rookie quarterback waiting in the wings.
Cam Newton’s presence might not have much of an impact on the Patriots’ long-term plans at QB. If they still think they need an upgrade, the 2021 NFL Draft is as good a place as any to give it a shot.
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