News & Analysis

Potential landing spots for QB Cam Newton

[Editor's note: This article was originally published on March 17 but has been updated to reflect the recent offseason movement and the news of Cam Newton's imminent release.]

We’ve been up and down this road a lot over the last year, but this time it is official — the Carolina Panthers are cutting quarterback Cam Newton, giving him the freedom to sign with any team. 

As the replacement, Carolina is planning on signing Teddy Bridgewater to a three-year deal that is reportedly worth $20 million per year, which makes sense considering the connection with new offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who served as an offensive assistant for the New Orleans Saints back in 2018.

A tank for Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence was seemingly in Carolina’s future before they made the reported move for Bridgewater. However, that might be in New England’s best interest now, following Tom Brady's departure from his long-term home.

Carolina's desire to move on from Newton is certainly understandable, as the former NFL MVP has had to deal with a plethora of injuries that have derailed his once-promising career. Over his nine-year career, Newton has suffered an ankle sprain, an ankle ligament tear, a chest rib fracture, a back vertebral fracture (non-football), a concussion, a knee strain and a torn rotator cuff on his throwing side that was later reinjured. His latest setback, a foot sprain, ultimately sidelined him for most of the 2019 season. He turns 31 in April and would account for over 10% of Carolina's cap space in 2020.

Without the injuries, though, Newton is very much a mid-tier quarterback who can bust off an elite year with the right supporting cast and play-calling. He proved as much back in 2015 when he won MVP honors and posted an 86.3 passing grade that ranked fifth among the league's quarterbacks. Newton then proved it once again in 2018, when he started the season healthy and earned the NFL's 11th-best PFF passing grade through the first nine weeks.

Cam Newton: PFF passing grade and rank (2011-2019)
Season Snaps PFF passing grade Passing grade rank
2011 1,035 65.1 22/38
2012 1,019 68.6 18/38
2013 1,071 71.7 19/43
2014 1,078 74.7 14/39
2015 1,279 86.3 5/40
2016 1,022 69.4 22/37
2017 1,124 67.7 25/41
2018 885 70.0 23/39
2019 141 55.5 N/A

While Newton hasn't thrown “perfectly placed” passes at a particularly high rate, he does avoid flat-out uncatchable passes when he’s healthy.

PFF has a ball-charting process — which is currently led by former NFL quarterback Bruce Gradkowski and was formerly led by Los Angeles Rams wide receivers coach Zac Robinson — charts every single pass thrown in a season. And if we look at the data from Newton’s stretch of healthy games played in 2018, we can see that he is capable of being an effective passer.

Lowest uncatchable pass rate on throws beyond the line of scrimmage (2018, Weeks 1-9)
Rank Player Uncatchable pass rate
1 Drew Brees 13.2%
2 Carson Wentz 13.5%
3 Derek Carr 13.6%
4 Kirk Cousins 14.1%
5 Philip Rivers 14.9%
6 Matt Ryan 15.0%
7 Alex Smith 17.5%
8 Cam Newton 18.1%
8 Patrick Mahomes 18.1%

In that same span, Newton produced an above-average rate of negatively graded throws while ranking in the top five in positively graded throw rate — a trend that matches what we saw during his 2015 MVP campaign when he produced the NFL's highest rate of positively graded throws.

The bottom line is that if Newton is healthy — though that's a big if at this stage — and if he's put in the right scheme, he can be a reliable option at quarterback. So, with that in mind, these are the five landing spots that not only fit Newton the best but also are the most likely. 

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

The Patriots' receiving unit may have been incredibly poor last season, barely cracking the 25th percentile in both team receiving grade and the percentage of catchable passes caught, but the franchise has the assets to make plays toward improving that.

Bill Belichick has a plethora of draft picks available to him to use on this loaded wide receiver class, and there are still a few solid free agent receivers available to pair with Julian Edelman. The defense also returns their key coverage players (don’t invest too much in what their pass-rush looks like on paper) who combined to post the second-highest coverage grade in the NFL last year and allowed far and away the fewest amount of expected points added per play.

Belichick is nearing the end of his time as the leader of the Patriots organization, so it seems likely that he would prefer to win now with the assets and solid roster they have now as opposed to possibly tanking for Clemson's Trevor Lawrence. The quarterback market is dim right now, and Cam Newton — assuming he’s healthy enough to play next year — would certainly be a better option than Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Before I begin, allow me to clarify that I am certainly no doctor. Having said that, though, the fact that Big Ben Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending injury to his throwing elbow at age 37 (now 38) doesn’t really scream, “you can bank on me returning back to top-10 form when I return.”

Roethlisberger was by no means an elite quarterback even before his injury last season. In fact, he was showing signs of decline. In 2018, Big Ben produced his lowest single-season passing grade since 2009, which actually ranked 17th among signal-callers in the NFL. His percentage of uncatchable passes thrown on passes thrown 10 or more yards downfield tied with Mitchell Trubisky for the third-worst mark in the league, and it was barely better than the figures put forth by Josh Allen and Josh Rosen (Cam Newton finished 13th that season, for what it’s worth).

Things then didn't get much better for the Pittsburgh passer in 2019, as he produced a 49.5 passing grade across his 65 dropbacks before suffering the injury. Yes, his 2019 season may offer a small sample size, but when you look at the 2018 season combined with the short 2019 season combined with the fact that he'll be returning from a serious injury, it doesn't look all that promising in Pittsburgh.

If Big Ben either isn’t good to go in 2020 or isn’t the same great quarterback we once all knew, Pittsburgh doesn’t have a reliable option behind him. Among 39 quarterbacks who took at least 150 dropbacks in 2019, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges ranked 37th and 39th, respectively, in PFF passing grade.

A security blanket is needed in Pittsburgh,  and adding Cam Newton should be seriously considered.

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

The Chargers are reportedly rolling the dice with Tyrod Taylor as their starting signal-caller, so we will likely see a similar offense to the one Taylor ran in Buffalo when Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn was then an offensive coordinator/interim head coach for the Bills.

Taylor was fairly successful in this type of offense, which incorporated read-option plays, RPO plays and a heavy dose of play-action passing, and ended up earning PFF grades that ranked ninth, 14th and 12th, respectively, from 2015 to 2017.

However, this type of offense often puts the quarterback at somewhat of a risk. Easton Stick, a 2019 fifth-round pick, is currently the backup to Taylor in Los Angeles, but he doesn’t have nearly the same “upside” as Cam Newton does in that kind of offense. 

We may have hit Newton’s passing performance hard, but we didn’t even talk about what he brings to the table as a ball-carrier. From 2011 to 2018, Newton saw nearly 300 more carries than any other quarterback (including scrambles) and posted the second-highest rate of carries that resulted in either a first down or touchdown (37.8%). Over 53% of his carries resulted in positive expected points added per play, too. If the Chargers truly are set with Taylor as their starting quarterback, Newton would be a great backup option, but if they're not set, Newton could very well beat out Taylor for the starting job.

BUFFALO BILLS

Josh Allen’s greatest weapon is his legs. When he has taken off with the ball in his hands — either on a designed run play or a scramble — he’s averaged 4.0 yards after contact per attempt and has picked up a first down or touchdown on 41.1% of his carries (both are the highest figures for a quarterback since 2018). Like we said for Taylor and the Chargers, though, this is a great weapon to have, but it comes with a big risk.

Allen hasn’t quite performed up to scratch as a passer; his accuracy is still suspect, as he owns the second-lowest rate of uncatchable passes thrown beyond the line of scrimmage since entering the league, and while he's been able to deliver on underneath routes and quick passes, he has struggled mightily with the deep ball.

Buffalo built an offense that catered to Allen’s strengths as a passer in 2019 and the team has done a great job of surrounding him with the playmakers needed to make a playoff run in 2020. Signing Cam Newton not only gives the Bills a possible backup they could win with if Josh Allen suffers an injury, but the former MVP's presence would also keep the pressure on Allen as he enters the third year of his NFL career.

CHICAGO BEARS

Alright, now here us out — Mitchell Trubisky versus Nick Foles versus Cam Newton for Chicago's starting quarterback job. The simple logic behind this: If you haven’t found your guy at the quarterback position, keep swinging until you finally hit.

By already trading for Nick Foles, the Bears have admitted that Trubisky may just not be their guy. Trubisky's PFF overall grade has ranked 25th or worse among the 32 starting quarterbacks in each of his three seasons, and he has been wildly inaccurate with the football over that stretch.

Trubisky's percentage of accurate 10-plus yard passes since coming into the league ranks dead last among qualifying quarterbacks over that span, and only Jameis Winston and Josh Allen have generated a worse negatively graded play rate since 2017. The former second overall pick's rate of positively graded plays ranks 27th among that very same group.

Nick Foles has an edge, given his vast experience in an offense like Matt Nagy’s due to his time spent in Kansas City and Philadelphia. While Foles is far from perfect, he has proved to be an average, reliable quarterback at times. We have seen Foles produce a top-10 season back in 2013 when he owned the eighth-best passing grade in the NFL, and perhaps more recently, we have seen him produce at an average level by earning passing grade ranks of 15th and 18th in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

While the four teams above are considered the most likely landing spots for Newton, this last one is more of a hypothetical. That said, both Foles' and Newton’s high end surpasses anything that Chicago has seen over the last decade.

Chicago also owns minimal cap space right now, so there would most certainly have to be a lot of restructuring involved. However, the quarterback is the most valuable position on the field, and given that they have a Super Bowl-caliber team in place outside of the quarterback position, they should consider making such a move — because why would you put all your chips on one spot on the roulette table when you can disperse them and see what lands?

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