With the cap tightening for the 2021 season, we’re in for a wild free agency ahead. But before the mayhem, we saw some predictable moves this week between the Cowboys finally giving Dak Prescott the deal he deserves and Chris Godwin and Allen Robinson staying put on the franchise tag. (We have reactions on the Godwin/A-Rob news here.)
However, the Patriots bringing back Cam Newton on a one-year deal worth up to $14M was a… surprise. Now, this move obviously doesn’t preclude Bill Belichick from moving up from 15 overall to take a quarterback, but the money in his new contract suggests they are going to give Cam a chance to start. According to ESPN’s Mike Reiss, about $6M of Newton’s deal is incentives.
With subpar blocking and terrible weapons, Newton posted a career-low in ESPN’s QBR (47.0) while throwing only 8 TDs on 368 attempts. Newton’s biggest downfall was his performance under pressure. Cam was fantastic at extending plays and making ridiculous throws earlier when he was under duress early in his career, but that wasn’t the case at all in 2020. According to PFF, Newton’s 45.8 passer rating when pressured ranked eighth-worst out of 41 qualified QBs. Newton did a poor job at escaping defenders and took a sack a whopping 24% of the time when pressured (fifth-highest rate).
Cam struggled when he threw from a clean pocket, too. According to SIS, Newton ranked tied for 22nd with Andy Dalton in on-target, accurate throws beyond the line of scrimmage when he wasn’t pressured (77%). Yikes.
To be fair, the Patriots undeniably had the worst weapons in the NFL last year. After Julian Edelman went down for the season with a knee injury, Newton’s top targets were Jakobi Meyers (29% target share) and Damiere Byrd (20%). That simply can’t happen. And as a result, New England’s receiver group scored 25.5 fantasy points per game, last in the league. Their tight end group was even worse and scored just 3.1 FPG (also last).
Regardless, if the Patriots do roll with Cam as their Week 1 starter, they simply have to bring in a whole new crop of receivers in free agency in the draft. Belichick is a mastermind and the best coach of all-time, but we all know drafting receivers has been a massive blindspot. Maybe the team brought back Cam just to show the free agent WR group that they at least have a quarterback under contract? Luckily, New England has the third-most cap space ($68.5M per Over The Cap) so they have plenty of flexibility to revamp their WR corps. Throwing money isn’t exactly Belichick’s style, but he has to be active in the market.
As long as Cam is the starter, the Patriots will continue to be extremely run-heavy. Last season, OC Josh McDaniels designed a brand-new, run-first offense. New England went a ridiculous 62% run-heavy when leading (highest rate), 51% run-heavy when the game was within a score (second-highest), and 46% run-heavy when trailing (second-highest rate). And it was effective! Cam’s dual threat ability certainly helped open up rushing lanes for their running backs as only the Ravens (0.10) and Titans (0.06) averaged more EPA/rush than the Patriots (0.04) per SIS.
After he returned off of I.R. in Week 4, Damien Harris quietly ranked 11th in rushing yards per game (69.1) while handling 61% of the non-QB carries. I’m never too keen on drafting RBs that are non-factors in the passing game, but Harris’ RB34, 99 overall (early 9th round) ADP in best-ball certainly features room for upside if he continues to improve in his first full year as the starter.