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The Patriots had to bring back Cam Newton, but he can't be Bill Belichick's only QB option in 2021

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist
·6-min read

By the end of last season, there was no escaping the disappointment of the Cam Newton experiment in New England. From turnovers to the throws in the dirt to the offense compressing into a run-predicated, dink-and-dunk orgy, nothing really materialized the way the Patriots and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels envisioned. 

It wasn’t entirely Newton’s fault. There was an undeniable lack of talent at the skill positions, the offensive line struggled through stretches, and although Newton largely shrugged it off, his testing positive for COVID-19 disrupted his rhythm as a starter.

There’s also no denying Newton’s limitations at this stage of his career. As a passer, he’s not going to consistently elevate mediocre players. And if 2020 taught us anything, it's that he needs help across the board on offense, from protection to run scheming to ascending players catching the football.

With all that in mind, it’s understandable that fans would scratch their heads over Newton's return to the Patriots on Friday, via a one-year deal that could be worth as much as $14 million with incentives. In an offseason when some teams are adopting the notion of “either you’re the answer or you’re not” with their quarterbacks, the Patriots have chosen a hedge. Something like …

Maybe Cam wasn’t as bad as he looked.

Maybe there’s value in another low-risk salvage attempt.

Maybe this buys us the time we’re looking for to find a long-term answer.

If you view Newton’s signing through those prisms, there is some sensibility in Friday’s retention, particularly when you consider how the quarterback market is shaking out as we head into free agency.

Whether or not the Patriots, who re-signed Cam Newton on Friday, would like to bring back Jimmy Garoppolo, sources indicate they can't at the moment. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Whether or not the Patriots, who re-signed Cam Newton on Friday, would like to bring back Jimmy Garoppolo, sources indicate they can't at the moment. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

First and foremost: A league source told Yahoo Sports that as of Friday, the San Francisco 49ers have continued to tell teams they aren’t actively shopping Jimmy Garoppolo. The source said part of the issue is the alternative options to supplant Garoppolo have either been too costly or unavailable — which leans into the possibility that San Francisco has settled into the mindset that it’s Deshaun Watson or no quarterback trade at all this offseason. The source also pointed out that the Niners are well-positioned, even if they keep Garoppolo for another year, given the team’s ability to cut him for $25.6 million in salary-cap savings in 2022, which would make them a cap space juggernaut next offseason.

Watson is gumming up this picture for the Patriots. And the 49ers' pursuit would make sense, given that Houston Texans general manager Nick Caserio was a key part of drafting Garoppolo in New England. It actually makes the Texans as ideal a spot as any for a quarterback swap involving Garoppolo, particularly when San Francisco’s mindset is that it’s not bailing on its starter without a concrete long-term replacement lined up.

Of course, the question remains if Houston is going to actively listen to offers for Watson, and precisely how deep into the roster San Francisco would have to carve in order to offer a competitive package of draft picks and players.

That effectively kills the Patriots' pursuit of Garoppolo. Not only does New England lack a quarterback that San Francisco values, Bill Belichick also isn’t inclined to sit around and wait for San Francisco to go through an elongated process with some other team. With free agency looming and some draft-worthy quarterbacks on the table, the Patriots have to start moving forward now.

That leaves them in a spot where they have to make some kind of decision now to at least fill the top of the depth chart while other options are weighed. Unless this is going to be a total reboot, it would not have been palatable to go into free agency with Jarrett Stidham as New England's only quarterback avenue. At the very least, Newton is a bridge starter who patches up the position enough to be able to chase free agents and sell a longer-term plan. Especially when the Patriots have already begun to take steps to rebuild the offensive line with the acquisition of offensive tackle Trent Brown.

That addition suggests the team is going to be geared toward running the ball more, which plays into Newton’s strengths at this stage and gives the Patriots flexibility. If New England gets Newton for an entire offseason program and can rebuild its line to shorten the offense into a more power-predicated look, there’s a chance he molds into the quality starter the team was hoping to land last offseason. Even if the offseason program and some economic shopping additions around Newton don’t transform him into a better version of himself as a Patriot, there is still some upside for New England in bringing him back.

The point here is Newton can’t and won’t be the only meaningful way the Patriots address the quarterback spot this offseason. If anything, this is the first step in a value-based play. If Newton rounds into form and earns the full $14 million with his contract incentives, that would still be a great deal for New England because it comes at a modest price tag. If he doesn’t, Newton becomes the veteran who creates the bridge to the next quarterback who will be added in the coming months. Someone who appears more and more likely to be a draft pick — and potentially foreshadows a move for a first-round talent coming from a source of familiarity (see: Alabama and Nick Saban product Mac Jones).

All of this spells out why Newton coming back is a no-brainer for New England. It’s far more realistic than the fantasy of giving up a slew of draft picks and money for Watson. And unless Garoppolo comes free, it’s arguably a better option than giving up draft assets for another veteran castoff who might be only a marginally better replacement for Newton anyway.

It also goes without saying that things could change with the Garoppolo situation. If Watson never materializes for the 49ers, it’s still possible the team could target a trade for a rookie inside the top 10 picks and then ship Garoppolo to New England in the wake of that move. Newton isn’t making so much on this latest deal that such a move would be entirely off the table, especially with the Patriots having so much cap space to work with. New England has that kind of flexibility if a good opportunity develops down the line.

For now, something had to be done heading into free agency. Stidham sitting atop the depth chart would do nothing but raise the red flag of total uncertainty. New England doesn’t need that kind of hurdle, especially when it’s looking to spend wisely with its ample free agency war chest. Newton is at least suggestive of a deeper plan — and that might be the best news you get from the Patriots quarterback spot in 2021.

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