Cam Newton is used to wielding a lot of influence. His impact on the short-term future of the New England Patriots is immeasurable.
The idea a starting quarterback’s play can dictate an NFL team’s on-field success is nothing new. That’s certainly true for Cam Newton and the Patriots in 2020.
The more interesting thing to analyze is how crucial the veteran signal-caller’s play will be to influencing how New England’s front office will operate in the near future.
Expect the way Newton either succeeds or fails to set the course for Patriots’ personnel decisions over the next year and change. In particular, it will largely decide whether or not Bill Belichick spends a first-round pick on the quarterback position in the upcoming NFL Draft.
There’s an outside chance Newton can play well enough to pilot the Patriots to another playoff berth this season. That task is severely complicated by the decisions of several New England stalwarts to opt-out of the 2020 campaign. The franchise saw a league-high eight players opt out highlighted by Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung and Marcus Cannon.
Newton’s health is the other variable. The Panthers released him because they didn’t believe he was a reliable starter any longer. Newton will need to show he’s capable of holding up over a full 16-game slate if he wants New England’s coaching staff to trust him moving forward.
So what if Cam Newton flops?
This is the simplest course forward to predict for the Patriots’ front office. If Newton fails to stay healthy or reach the playoffs, the organization will be armed with considerable draft capital moving forward.
Rumors connecting Belichick with interest in Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence have been floating around for months. The Patriots might need to secure the No. 1 overall pick to acquire him. It’s hard to realistically imagine a Belichick team playing that poorly no matter what struggles they endure at the quarterback position.
That’s why Justin Fields might be a more realistic target. He’s not as polished as Lawrence as a passer, but he will provide his team with an extra dimension in the run game. Ironically, he would bring similar traits to the Patriots as they’re hoping to gain from adding Newton to the mix. Selecting him will require New England to have a high draft pick, but it’s more reasonable to think they can maneuver their way into the sort of selection required to nab the Ohio State star.
What if Cam Newton leads the Patriots to the playoffs?
If Newton plays often and well enough to drag this depleted roster into the postseason, he deserves a new deal from New England’s front office. Belichick won’t break the bank for an injury-prone quarterback who will be 32 years old next season, but a multi-year contract at a reasonable salary could be in order.
In a perfect world for the Patriots, they can lock Netwon up for three or four years at a salary that remains at or below the mean compensation figure for starting quarterbacks. In essence, they could lock him up at a moderate discount due to a combination of his age and injury concerns. Locking him in at a reasonable number would give the front office a great deal of flexibility in terms of filling out the rest of the roster.
Instead of spending a high pick on a quarterback, the Patriots would continue to develop Jarrett Stidham as their present backup and possible starter of the future. That would free the front office to spend their draft capital in 2021 on strengthening other positions of need on the roster. Finding a playmaker for Newton on the outside or securing a top-flight edge rusher could be great boosts to New England’s talent pool.
The money the team would save by avoiding a massive contract for a starting quarterback would also make it easier to retain current talent and secure some solid free-agency additions. The Patriots aren’t going to set the market on fire in free agency, but making a few mid-level moves could give Belichick a lot more depth to work with.
What do the Patriots actually want to happen in 2020?
The worst thing that can happen for New England this season is to land somewhere in the morass of NFL mediocrity. They need to get a clear answer from Newton as to whether or not he can be their starting quarterback for the foreseeable future.
Instead, the Patriots should strive to land on one extreme or another. If they stumble out of the gate they should lean into the idea of tanking for Lawrence. That might run against Belichick’s DNA as a competitor, but reloading the talent pool with a new, elite signal-caller would be worth the short-term heartache.
The franchise would be as pleased to see Newton rediscover his MVP form and lead the team on a lengthy, and surprising, run to the playoffs. Answering the question of whether or not Newton can be trusted as the team’s quarterback emphatically in a positive direction would also be a terrific outcome for the franchise. It might be the less likely of the two extreme outcomes, but Newton does have some meaningful chance of becoming a star again.
The sheer variance of Newton’s potential play at the game’s most important position makes the Patriots one of the most intriguing teams to watch heading into the regular season. It also gives the front office two very divergent paths to plan for as it relates to the upcoming offseason.
Sink or swim, Cam is going to define the Patriots’ future. It’s strange to think that Belichick might not be the most influential man in Foxborough for the first season in quite some time.