Cam Newton Move Shouldn't Stop Patriots from Pursuing Another QB This Offseason

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMarch 15, 2021

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick speaks to the media following an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Elise Amendola/Associated Press

By re-signing veteran quarterback Cam Newton to a one-year contract just ahead of the start of free agency, the New England Patriots sent several messages to the football world:

1. They're not convinced Newton is toast despite the fact that he threw just eight touchdown passes to 10 interceptions in an extremely inefficient age-31 season with the Pats.

2. They aren't satisfied with 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham or undrafted 24-year-old Jake Dolegala, both of whom remain on the team's quarterback depth chart.

3. They're not done.

As ESPN's Mike Reiss and Tim Hasselbeck pointed out, Newton's $5.1 million salary for 2021 is a backup-caliber deal, and that number rises only slightly even if he starts the entire 2021 campaign in New England ($6.6 million). It grows to $8.6 million if he starts all year and the Pats make the playoffs.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The Patriots have more projected salary-cap space than all but two other NFL teams at $65.9 million, according to Spotrac, but it's clear the Newton move was a hedge in the event that they can't upgrade. It makes sense when you consider they have so much to spend, as well as the fact that there's never a guarantee any starting-caliber quarterback will become available.

Dak Prescott is off the market now, and the Pats can't be sure the San Francisco 49ers will part ways with Jimmy Garoppolo, or that the Las Vegas Raiders will deal Derek Carr or Marcus Mariota, or that the New York Jets will trade Sam Darnold within the division, or that Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson will actually be granted trades.

Or, for that matter, that any of the draft's top five quarterbacks—Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Mac Jones—will be available to them when they're on the clock with the No. 15 overall pick in April's draft.

The Patriots also indicated they're in it to win it again in 2021 when they reacquired Trent Brownwho started for them at left tackle in their last Super Bowl seasonfrom the Las Vegas Raiders. They also haven't released any of their expensive starters to tip off a rebuild, so it's clear legendary 68-year-old head coach Bill Belichick isn't willing to tear it down and start from scratch.

With that in mind, the new worst-case scenario makes sense. At the very least, the Patriots will have a former MVP under center, and it's entirely possible he'll be better after a full, more "normal" offseason in order to become further acclimated with the Patriots offense. More support wouldn't hurt either, and the Pats can afford to sign or trade for upgrades beyond the Brown deal.

But this can't be viewed as New England's best-case scenario.

"Cam can't play football anymore," former Patriot Rodney Harrison told NBC Sports Boston last month. "He just can't play quarterback in the National Football League."

Newton will be 32 in May, he has an extremely physical playing style, he relies heavily on his physical abilities, and he took a beating by way of 285 sacks in his first eight seasons. He continues to make an impact with his legs, but he hasn't been a first- or second-team All-Pro or even a Pro Bowler since his MVP 2015 season.

In the five years that have elapsed since that memorable campaign, he's missed 18 games because of injury and has the league's third-lowest qualified passer rating, ahead of just Darnold and Blake Bortles. And in his last 20 games dating back to 2018, he's thrown 17 interceptions compared to just 10 touchdown passes.

Lowest-rated passers since 2016
27. Ryan Fitzpatrick85.5
28. Joe Flacco82.8
29. Cam Newton82.7
30. Blake Bortles81.0
31. Sam Darnold78.6
Min. 14 attempts per team game played

According to a 2018 report from ESPN's Seth Wickersham, Belichick was "furious and demoralized" when the Patriots front office told him to trade Garoppolo at the 2017 deadline. Four years later, the Jimmy G experiment hasn't exactly worked out for the 49ers, and Belichick may believe he can still get the most out of his 2014 second-round pick back in Foxborough.

The 49ers front office has stood by Garoppolo publicly, but not in an overly effusive fashion. And Wickersham reported last year that the team "discussed" pursuing Tom Brady before he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After another injury-marred campaign from Garoppolo (his second in three full seasons there), I find it hard to believe the 49ers are satisfied.

At this point, even with Newton under contract, that should be the Patriots' focus. If they can land Garoppolo, they'd owe him and Newton a combined total of about $29 million in 2021, with practically no strings attached beyond the upcoming season. That'd give them insurance against injury for a talented but fragile quarterback who has missed 23 games the last three seasons in San Francisco, and it's not as though Belichick and Josh McDaniels couldn't find creative ways to incorporate both players frequently.

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

The same could be said of Carr, a three-time Pro Bowler quietly coming off the two highest-rated seasons of his career. Or Mariota, the second overall pick from 2015 who flashed at times with the Tennessee Titans and is now a high-end backup in Las Vegas at the age of 27.

Either Raiders quarterback would come even cheaper than Garoppolo and arguably with similar upside in a new setting. Call them reclamation projects if you like, but the Patriots are better with said cases than any other team in the league.

At least a handful of NFL quarterbacks would possess higher 2021 cap hits than Garoppolo or Carr or Mariota plus Newton, and that number would likely grow significantly if the Patriots decided to give the new arrival an extension.

The Patriots might not have enough expendable depth and/or draft capital to pursue Watson or Wilson, both of whom have expressed discontent with their respective teams early this offseason, but we're talking about respectable consolation prizes. These quarterbacks have the ability to help get teams to Super Bowls, and we saw that firsthand with Garoppolo in 2019.

And even if none of that comes to pass, there's the still-very-young Darnold if the Jets move on, impending free agents Mitchell Trubisky and Jameis Winston if they hit the market this week, potential Carolina Panthers cut Teddy Bridgewater, and recently released veteran Alex Smith. Plus, there's a chance Lance or Jones (or maybe even Fields or Wilson) drops on draft night, in which case there should be no doubt about the Patriots' approach.

Newton might be back, but the Patriots would be foolish to stop there. That's not something Belichick and Co. are guilty of often.


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Gagnon.