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The Patriots Still Believe in Cam Newton

After the quarterback’s lackluster performance in 2020, many assumed New England would move on. But Bill Belichick re-signed the former MVP to a one-year deal on Friday.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It doesn’t matter whether you think Cam Newton can’t still perform like the Cam Newton of old, because Bill Belichick disagrees. Early Friday morning, The Boston Globe’s Jim McBride reported that the Patriots re-signed Newton to a one-year deal. Per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, New England brought the 31-year-old back on a contract worth “close to $14 million.” According to multiple reports, the deal doesn’t preclude the Patriots from pursuing an additional QB this offseason, but it is a vote of confidence for a quarterback who largely disappointed last season.

Last year, the Patriots looked like they were (still) the NFL’s smartest franchise when they signed Newton to an “incentive-laden” $7.5 million contract. The pairing started well, but after Newton contracted COVID-19 in Week 4, things spiraled downhill. Newton finished the season with just 2,657 passing yards to go with more interceptions (10) than passing TDs (eight) as the Pats finished with a losing record for the first time in two decades. That spurred two of the biggest and most fascinating questions entering the offseason: Where would Cam Newton land? And what would the Patriots do at QB?

A few weeks ago, Newton appeared on the I Am Athlete podcast, and was asked point-blank by Fred Taylor whether he’d go back to New England on a one-year deal. “Yes,” Newton responded. “Hell, yes.” Throughout the episode, Newton praised the Patriots organization, sharing a clear desire to return. He described Belichick as sports’ most misunderstood personality, who’s “dope as shit” and “a cool dude.” He spoke glowingly of the Patriot Way, calling it an “aura” one possesses where “you’re a machine.” Newton also defended and expressed excitement about potentially returning to work with the Patriots’ young pass catchers, including receivers N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers. Newton’s itch to finish what he’d started was palpable.

“I’m getting tired of changing,” Newton said. “I’m at a point in my career, I know way more than I knew last year. Now you give me [a full offseason] ... They know me: “Doughboy” (Harry) knows me, Jakobi knows me, (receiver Damiere) Byrd knows me, the young tight ends know me; the younger guys that are going to come in.”

Newton got his wish. He’s re-assumed the most difficult QB job in the sport, entering his second season as Tom Brady’s replacement. This time, he gets a full offseason to prepare. As a newcomer, Newton guided the Patriots to a 7-8 record as a starter. Meanwhile, Brady, who signed an extension Friday, led the Buccaneers to their second-ever Super Bowl. Not only were Patriots fans upset with the contrast in play, but Newton felt helpless at times knowing his play wasn’t good enough to win. He even acknowledged he knew when a benching was imminent.

“Everything is geared to win,” Newton said. “And if you’re not built for that, that’s not the place for you. And I’ll say this: That’s not the place where you wanna lose either. And I learned that the hard way.”

Newton asserted that there are not 32 NFL quarterbacks who are better than him. The Patriots believe none of the available free-agent options are better than the one-time league MVP—at least for now. Newton was the biggest name left on the free-agent QB market. The other top options available—Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick—weren’t enticing enough to be priority options and both have histories of turning the ball over too much to be ideal fits for a Belichick team anyway. Re-signing former third-round pick Jacoby Brissett wouldn’t have given New England’s offense a very high ceiling. But with Newton in tow, the Patriots now at least have continuity at their most important position. That gives the organization the flexibility to address the position again this offseason while getting the rest of the roster in order. Perhaps the draft presents the avenue to do so; the Patriots own the 15th pick in the 2021 draft. While that likely won’t be high enough to snag one of the highly coveted top-four QB prospects, Alabama’s Mac Jones could be available at that spot. If New England selects a quarterback in the draft—whether in the first round or later—at least having Newton around would ease the rookie’s transition.

According to Over the Cap, the Patriots entered Friday with the league’s third-most cap space ($68.5 million). Last season, they looked like and performed like one of the NFL’s worst overall rosters, finishing 22nd in Football Outsiders’ total DVOA ratings while touting the no. 23 offense and no. 26 defense. The Ringer’s Danny Kelly ranked New England 19th in his way-too-early power rankings at the end of last season, and noted that the club needed to address both lines, add receiver talent, replenish the secondary with youth, and assess the QB situation. They’re making headway on the to-do list in the trenches. The Patriots brought offensive tackle Trent Brown back after acquiring him from the Raiders for a fifth-round pick. With offensive tackle Marcus Cannon returning from the opt-out list, New England’s offensive line is already looking improved. The Patriots also signed star special teamer Justin Bethel to a three-year, $6 million deal Friday; New England’s special teams finished no. 1 in special teams DVOA.

As for receiver and tight end, the Patriots would benefit from signing a free agent or two since they’ve been unsuccessful in the draft over the past several years. NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reported earlier this week that teams have reached out to New England about trades for Harry, who’s recorded 45 catches for 414 yards and four TDs in two seasons. Regardless of whether Harry remains or not, the Patriots need to upgrade outside in order for the offense to be less stale. Their receiver group ranked 26th in Pro Football Focus grade (70.6) last year, down from 23rd (69.8) in 2019 and 11th in 2018 (78.2). With pass catchers such as receivers Kenny Golladay, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Corey Davis, and tight end Hunter Henry available, there are quality options for New England to invest in. A star receiver could benefit whoever’s behind center, whether it’s Newton, another veteran, or a rookie.

It was always unlikely that the Patriots would land Deshaun Watson or Russell Wilson, star QBs who have either demanded trades or hinted at one. Without a blockbuster deal for a player like that, New England’s QB options were always going to be limited. But by bringing Newton back, the team established a higher floor going into next season. The Patriots already face an uphill battle in competing with a potential Super Bowl contender in the Bills and an emerging playoff team in the Dolphins. The AFC East is no longer a cakewalk, but signing Newton is a positive step toward remaining in contention for the division crown.

At the beginning of the 2020 season, it looked like life without Brady would be a much more seamless transition for the Patriots than expected. But a year since Brady’s departure, New England is still searching for stability behind center. Newton, at the very least, offers the offense a familiar face. As Newton noted, the Patriots are “still trying to flush 20 years out of how it used to be.” The process won’t be easy. Perhaps a quick solution is out there—but it hasn’t arrived yet. Newton is willing to try again to prove he can be it. New England could definitely do worse.