News & Analysis

QB Cam Newton signs 1-year deal with the New England Patriots

Nov 13, 2017; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) celebrates a touchdown in the third quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Cam Newton is a New England Patriot.

In news that is both stunning yet kind of expected, ESPN's Adam Schefter has reported that the Patriots have signed the 2015 NFL MVP to an incentive-laden 1-year deal that is said to be worth up to $7.5 million.

The idea that the Patriots were going to try and compete for a year with Jarrett Stidham at quarterback made almost no sense. Stidham has shown little to be considered a competent NFL quarterback; unless he made some miraculous jump, playing him in 2020 might have wasted one of the NFL’s best defenses.

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While Stidham's counting stats may have looked fine after taking 217 preseason snaps, his 4-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio was not what it seemed — he had five big-time throws to six turnover-worthy plays and took 10 sacks.

Stidham's passing grade after removing RPOs, screens and designed rollouts — I call this true dropback grade — was 73.2. Among the 77 quarterbacks who logged at least 25 of these dropbacks last preseason, his grade was 23rd, sandwiched between Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Sloter.

Players, of course, can improve — but there was nothing that suggested that Stidham was ever going to be a viable starting quarterback.

Enter Cameron Newton. We already know he can play. Assuming he stays healthy, the Patriots are getting a player with a history of high-level play.

Cam Newton: PFF overall grade and rank (2011-19, regular season only)
Season Snaps PFF passing grade Passing grade rank
2011 1,035 67.3 19/40
2012 1,019 72.4 15/39
2013 1,014 73.3 17/44
2014 929 76.0 11/42
2015 1,078 83.9 5/39
2016 1,022 68.5 24/39
2017 1,051 66.5 27/42
2018 885 70.9 23/39
2019 141 48.5 N/A

The Cam Newton story is fascinating. Burdened with some below-average wide receiver talent over the years, Newton looked to be ascending onto a different plane of playing quarterback as he won the 2015 MVP award.

His passing grade on true dropbacks went from 69.7 in 2012 to 72.1 in 2013 to 75.7 in 2014. His MVP year saw him breakout at 84.2, good enough for sixth in the league.

That regular season, he rushed for a whopping 56 first downs on only 135 rushes. Among players with at least 100 carries that year, that 41.5% first-down rate dwarfs the next highest player. In 2015, he was a walking — or rather, running —  first down. All combined, his PFF grade was 83.9 that regular season.

Injuries would finally catch up to Newton in the subsequent seasons. In 2016, he was concussed early in the season and ended up tearing his rotator cuff later in the year. In the 2017 playoff game against the New Orleans Saints, he suffered knee ligament and cartilage damage. Early on in the 2018 season, his shoulder started acting up again; he played through pain every week until the Panthers eventually shut him down with the team out of the playoff hunt.

His 2019 season was ended after only two games because of a Lisfranc injury, but not before he looked belabored trying to play through the injury in a primetime game against Tampa Bay in Week 2. His PFF grade suffered. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, he graded out at 68.5, 66.5 and 70.9, respectively. His 2019 season was even worse, at 48.6, albeit in limited action. 

Is Cam Newton a one-hit wonder, or a tantalizing case of “what-if” had it not been for the injuries?

Well, in 2018, with a relatively healthy lower half, Newton was still incredible in the run game. On designed quarterback runs or option plays, Newton gained a first down 35.1% of the time and forced 0.16 missed tackles per attempt — third and sixth, respectively, among qualifying quarterbacks. Specifically on non-option plays, he picked up a first down on 50% of his carries.   

At his best, in 2015, the majority of his schemed runs were on power plays. With Mike Tolbert on the field, the Panthers were able to use the beefy running back to act as the fullback; they would have him kick out defensive ends, let a guard wrap through the hole and Newton would chug on through.

This gave the Panthers a numbers advantage in the box with the quarterback as the ball carrier. They could space the defense out and make it look like they were in regular 11 personnel, but really they were in a pseudo one-running back, one-fullback package. 

In the following years, with Christian McCaffrey on the field, the Panthers had to change. Out went most of the quarterback power schemes, and the quarterback boot became the first-down maker. From under center, the quarterback fakes an inside run and then boots away with the football to the corner.

The Patriots are already a heavy under-center play-action team — they had the fourth-most play-action dropbacks last season. But now they can add the true quarterback boot action to the playbook. Overall, Newton has been an average under-center play-action passer but was legitimately good in 2017, posting a passing grade of 87.3 on those plays.

Newton was able to throw the ball accurately over the middle of the field on those throws, which included this quick in-breaking route (below) that the Patriots often run off their play action.

The Patriots have already shown us some intriguing quarterback runs when Jacoby Brissett was thrust in the starting quarterback role in 2017. I’m sure Josh McDaniels is licking his chops.

Where the Patriots will need Cam to win consistently is in the dropback passing game. Newton has been in the league long enough that he’ll be able to come in and pick up the system; he should also be able to execute very nicely from a decision-making process. However, getting the ball to his receivers accurately has proven to be a real issue.

Just in terms of throws charted as accurate over the past three full seasons (postseason included), Newton ranks 36th among the 41 quarterbacks with at least 500 throws. Where he consistently fails is in trying to drop the ball down into his receiver’s hands.

Over that same span, 13.2% of Newton's passes were charted as “high” or “overthrown,” per PFF's QB charting process. Of players with over 300 throws, that’s only better than Josh Rosen, Mason Rudolph and Jeff Driskel

I’ve always felt the issue was the tremendous arch in his back when he throws. Quarterbacks and quarterback coaches are always talking about rotating around a fully erect spine. With the spine straight, the elbow is the only moving part to accuracy. So, with Newton’s arched back, he’s adding a second moving part. With that said, he’s a freakish athlete in the way he’s able to create torque and put velocity into his throws. 

Oct 16, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) makes a throw against the New Orleans Saints in the second half of the game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints won, 41-38. Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The accuracy is not the easiest issue to change at this point in his career, but Patriots fans will be hoping that all the injuries combined to affect those numbers greatly.

The Patriots' passing offense will have to change to accommodate Newton in the quick passing game, however. While Tom Brady’s accuracy in the quick passing game was a mainstay of the Patriots, Newton was the 41st most accurate passer on throws between 1 and 9 yards among quarterbacks with 100 attempts over the last three seasons. Brady averaged 4.6 quick game dropbacks a game over the last three seasons, and Newton only averaged 2.7. Those can be replaced by Newton’s designed quarterback runs where he’s added 127 expected points, most among any player — nevermind just quarterbacks — since 2006. 

In a division with youngsters Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, Tua Tagovailoa and the volatile Ryan Fitzpatrick, Newton could easily continue the Patriots' legacy of having the best quarterback in the division. He could also continue his downward spiral in his attempt to chase the high of 2015.

But despite the range of possible outcomes, he is definitely a better option for the Pats than Stidham — there is a tremendous quarterback under all the injuries, and for the excitement and unique ability that Cam brings, we can only hope we see that quarterback again.

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