In what might end up being the best move of the offseason, Bill Belichick and the Patriots signed Cam Newton to a deal that carries with it almost no risk and the potential upside of a top-tier quarterback.
In his prime, Newton was one of the best quarterbacks in the game. He isn’t that far removed from winning the NFL MVP and carrying the Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2015. Since then, however, his production has dropped off:
Newton’s physical style of play clearly caught up with him over the last few years. Various dents and dings limited his effectiveness, and more significant injuries to his throwing shoulder and left foot stopped him in his tracks altogether. These injuries aren’t just mere nuisances or maintenance issues. They are huge obstacles to overcome for a quarterback whose ability to perform is based on the power of his right arm and the explosiveness in his legs.
Precision has never been Newton’s defining characteristic. And that was okay when he was healthy and pummeling defenders. His physical skills helped him overcome many of his deficiencies, but that lack of precision has prevented Newton from being a consistent quarterback throughout his career. This issue has become more pronounced in recent seasons as the injuries have kept him from performing at his peak physical ability quite as often.
Much of Newton’s inconsistency is also due to his Superman mentality, which comes from his freakish physical abilities. He can keep plays alive with his legs, make throws with defenders hanging off of him, and fit passes into the tiniest of windows. These abilities create jaw-dropping plays. They also sometimes keep him from knowing when to give up on plays, protect the ball, and live to play another down.
The below interceptions are indicative of the types of mistakes Newton makes when at his worst – forced passes to receivers who really aren’t open:
Throws into windows that really aren’t there:
It isn’t just the turnovers or blatant mistakes that have prevented Newton from attaining that consistent level of play. He also misses opportunities for big plays far too frequently due to erratic accuracy:
That’s a wide-open receiver by NFL standards.
Below, Newton missed a wide open receiver by anyone’s standards:
This type of nondescript 2nd-down incompletion (that would have gotten Christian McCaffrey the ball with tons of room to maneuver) doesn’t make any highlight shows. But that’s the type of opportunity that can absolutely turn a game. These are the big plays that Newton sometimes leaves on the field.
So why should the Patriots be excited about Newton? First, he does still have tremendous physical ability despite the wear and tear.
The below throw from early 2018 gives you an idea of the type of arm strength Newton possesses. This was a far-hash deep comeback, a litmus test for arm strength in quarterbacks.
The ability to hit those throws downfield and to the outside will force defenses to honor the deep ball in ways they haven’t had to in New England in recent years, regardless of who lines up at wide receiver. And that ability to stretch the field should enable Julian Edelman to find plenty of space at the intermediate levels.
In case you’re concerned that Newton’s arm might not be the same as it was before his shoulder surgery, here’s a throw from Week 1 against the Rams last season.
Considering he was playing in that game on a bum left foot and therefore couldn’t generate power as easily with his lower body, the velocity on this throw is pretty impressive. He also didn’t transfer his weight completely due to Aaron Donald‘s pass rush getting in his face as he was releasing the ball. Still, he was able to fire off a missile.
Second, Newton’s skill-set from the pocket has improved over the years. Take the below play from the middle of the 2018 season against the Ravens (ranked the #1 scoring defense in the NFL at the time). Baltimore was showing a pressure look before bailing into a 3-deep zone. Newton wasn’t phased. From the shadow of his own goalpost, he calmly shook off the disguise, read the defense, kept his head down the middle of the field to hold the deep safety, and delivered a perfect ball within the rhythm of the play.
Playing within the rhythm of the offense is a key element to any passing game, especially New England’s. And it’s an area where Newton has improved significantly over the years. That’s also an effortless 40-yard throw, by the way.
Third, assuming he is healthy, the impact of Newton’s legs should open up opportunities elsewhere in the offense. Newton will likely generate plenty of yards and big plays on the ground. The threat of his legs will also create voids in coverage off of play-action, which is already a huge component of the Patriots Offense. And just think of the opportunities that will be opened up for Sony Michel and other New England backs in the running game.
The below play from 2018 gives you an idea of how the threat of Newton keeping the ball can influence a defense. Watch all of those defenders on the left side of the screen go with Cam. The offensive line was able to gain a numbers advantage and account for all defenders to the play side as a result.
Below is a freeze frame from the moment just before Christian McCaffrey sprung through the line of scrimmage. Look at the left side of the defense.
That’s the Cam Newton Effect.
Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels will have a skill-set at their disposal that they haven’t had before in New England. It’s a safe bet that they will find ways to take advantage and make defenses look foolish.
There was a split second this offseason when the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets were licking their chops at the prospect of taking over the AFC East in 2020. But if Cam Newton is healthy and can be anything close to what he was a few years ago, the chances of dethroning the Patriots will be just as bleak this season as any other over the last two decades for the rest of the division.
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