This article is part of our Dynasty Watch series.
After it previously appeared as if Cam Newton would need to sit out the 2020 season due to a lack of contract offers, the Patriots made waves Sunday when they agreed to terms with the 31-year-old former MVP, settling on a one-year deal for $7.5 million. If healthy, there will be no meaningful competition between Newton and 2019 third-round pick Jarrett Stidham. There are entire worlds of distance between these two players.
Newton's recovery from the Lisfranc injury that ended his 2019 season is a fair concern, of course, and likely the primary threat to his 2020 projections. It's easy to forget, but before Newton's foot was the red flag he had substantial difficulties with his throwing shoulder, which suffered a rotator cuff tear late in the 2016 season and endured more troubles in 2018.
As RotoWire injury expert Jeff Stotts (@InStreetClothes) offered,
It's difficult to place a precise number value on the risk Newton presents relative to his acquisition price, so those waters will be treacherous regardless of what angle you approach the question from. What we can say with some certainty, though, is that for the snaps Newton does play he projects to play at a level much better than Stidham/Hoyer. If we want to consider the full range of potential outcomes, this Newton signing could retract the roof on our previous expectations for the New England offense at large, backfield and route runners both. Pinpointing the beneficiaries will still be difficult, but it's a starting point for an offense that otherwise looked doomed to trash status.
This article by PFF's Seth Galina is a good recent scouting report and general history on Newton. He has his limitations – namely durability and accuracy in some situationally-specific cases – but in terms of pocket presence and ability to anchor the structure of a passing play, Newton has few peers. Newton has thrown a lot of incomplete passes that occurred on plays that would have instead ended up intercepted or otherwise derailed earlier under most other quarterbacks, and for most of his Carolina career he didn't have much help among blockers or pass catchers. Whatever specific theories you have about Newton this season or in general, I think it's important to note that he's a player whose broader publicly-received narrative is fundamentally confused. Many or most people believe he is something he isn't – a limited, run-dependent quarterback – and that has to mean something for the wagering markets around him and the Patriots offense. Some people believe that the quarterback who set the rookie first-game passing record and threw for 35 touchdowns to 10 interceptions in 2015 is something other than a good passer, and if there's money on that premise then there might be some sort of opportunity to capitalize on its wrongness.
My personal theory is that, in the event that his foot and shoulder are healthy, Newton will be more active passer and less active runner than most 2020 projections suppose. This would be a slight curveball for expectations, because less running would undermine Newton's fantasy value even if his real-life returns prove desirable, but it should help minimize the injury risk relative to how he was utilized in Carolina. I would expect the designed runs to mostly disappear, and I would expect fewer scrambles per dropback because I would expect the Patriots to arrange more low-difficulty wide receiver targets than Newton had in Carolina. It's also pertinent to note that Newton should enjoy a significant offensive line upgrade if the Patriots can withstand the loss of coach Dante Scarnecchia.
If that's correct, then some upcoming projections might do two things in light of the Newton signing: (1) underestimate Newton's benefits to the New England passing game relative to Stidham and (2) overestimate the threat Newton poses to the running backs' share of team rushing production.
Newton either attempted a pass or was sacked on 4,271 snaps (3,930 attempts, 291 sacks) versus 934 snaps as ballcarrier in his Carolina career. That's a ratio of 4.57 pass attempts or sacks to every carry, compared to Tom Brady's ratio of 21.7 to one. For the Patriots to leave Newton's ratio anywhere near what it was in Carolina would basically amount to sabotage, so we shouldn't expect it. I would expect Newton's ratio of pass attempts/sacks to carries to look more like the rushing workload of someone like Patrick Mahomes (10.4) or Aaron Rodgers (10.6) rather than Josh Allen (4.28).
If the Patriots maintain their uptempo approach on offense – it's hard to see why they wouldn't – then for that reason alone Newton would project a career-high in passing activity, maybe even enough to mostly offset any decline in his customary rushing production. The Patriots ran their offense with Football Outsiders' fastest situation-neutral pace metric in both of the last two years, and in 2017 they ranked second. The Panthers, by contrast, conducted affairs at a pace ranging between average and below average in that time span. Even if Newton runs more and throws less than Brady did in New England, Newton will likely throw more in New England than he did in Carolina for tempo reasons alone.
Over the past three years the Patriots logged an average of about 1,079 snaps from scrimmage per season. Newton will definitely turn some of Brady's dropback reps into clock-killing carries, so we should probably project more like 1,050 snaps in a 16-game projection for Newton. If Newton registers 10.5 pass attempts or sacks per carry attempt and withstands a sack percentage of 5.5, we'd project something like 540 pass attempts and 54 carries (31 sacks). Newton completed 67.9 percent of his 2018 pass attempts at 7.2 YPA and an ADOT of 7.3, while over the last two years Brady exhibited an ADOT of 8.1 while completing 63.2 percent of his passes at 7.1 YPA. Considering Newton was playing through a bad shoulder with a weak left side of the offensive line, we have reason to believe Newton will be a more effective passer if healthy than Brady was the last two years.
Let's say Newton does miraculously play 16 games, completing 64 percent of his passes at 7.2 YPA. This would project to roughly 346 completions for 3,888 yards. If we apply a touchdown rate of 5.0 percent, we're left with about 27 passing touchdowns. The games played and thus the play volume might be generous in this projection, but the efficiency stats are modest if not cautious. If we project Newton to average 4.5 yards per carry, his 54 carries for this scenario would project for 243 yards. Particularly if he gets those quarterback sneak calls like Brady did, Newton would project for four or five rushing touchdowns in this scenario.
As much as it's easy to imagine a scenario where Newton thrives in New England, the heightened injury risks make him someone ideally rostered in best ball formats. He won't hurt you as much in that format if he leaves in the second quarter of a game, and you won't have to harbor any irrational resentment toward him afterward. Whether he's worth the acquisition price depends on what he ends up costing, but it's not clear where that's headed. If people project Newton to recapture his glory days as a rushing threat, I'll probably find their price too steep. If people show skepticism toward Newton and push him past the QB15 price, however, then we're probably talking cheap enough to warrant the risk.
Newton's arrival is an ambiguous development for the New England backfield, in large part because the backfield was unclear all along. Sony Michel's poor durability luck and similarly poor on-field returns might open an audition window for second-year third-round pick Damien Harris, and the soon-to-be 30-year-old Rex Burkhead may or may not be a valued rotation option for the Patriots going into the final year of his contract.
James White is the only Patriots running back with a non-negotiable role, and he should be fine regardless of how things turn out with Newton. The way I would read this, though, is that the better Newton produces, the further away White gets from his max-upside scenario. White's max-upside scenario is simply one where the Patriots are forced into pass-heavy game flows. If Newton is making big throws and leading the Patriots to points on a high per-usage basis, it will free the Patriots to lean on their defense and go into a run-heavy script, at which point Michel or/and Harris would likely increase their share of the offense at White's expense. If Newton is struggling to establish leads and the Patriots defense can't get off the field, though, then it forces the Patriots to leave Michel/Harris on the sideline and try to catch up with White on the field. Despite this concern, Newton's arrival isn't solid enough grounds for me to lower White in my rankings. It just leads me to suspect his 2020 season will look more like his 2019 baseline than his outrageously good 2018 season.
Relative to Stidham, there's no question that Newton is a big upgrade for New England route runners. It's tougher to make the call relative to Brady, however, especially since Newton will almost definitely divert some of the offense's usage toward the ground. For Newton to prove an upgrade for any Patriots receiver he would need to exhibit different targeting biases than Brady, shifting usage from one player to a different beneficiary, otherwise Newton would need to do more yardage and scoring damage per rep than Brady did.
Just speaking anecdotally, I've felt many times over the past couple years that a lot of Julian Edelman's biggest plays were dictated by play structure rather than unique adeptness on the part of Brady or Edelman. I suspect a healthy Newton would be less dependent on pick-routes in the slot, so my personal suspicion is that Newton might be a slight downgrade for Edelman relative to Brady. Newton might direct a greater share of his targets away from the slot than Brady did, which I read as good news for N'Keal Harry and to a lesser extent Mohamed Sanu. Still, again, Newton is an upgrade for Edelman relative to Stidham.
Whereas I only considered Harry a dynasty league target in a Stidham offense, the signing of Newton has put Harry on my 2020 redraft radar. With a WR64 price tag in NFFC drafts this month (176.37) I'm quite interested in buying, pending whatever price increase we might see. In the meantime I can say I'd likely prefer Harry to players like DeSean Jackson (147.72), Michael Pittman (150.16), Robby Anderson (158.23), Antonio Gibson (164.1), and Brandon Aiyuk (172.05).
Perhaps Newton won't prove as beneficial for the Patriots receivers (especially Edelman) as Brady did, but the outlook is still improved for everyone since the Patriots offense will move more chains and score more points than they would have under the Stidham sentence.