2020 NFL Preview: Tom Brady is gone, but can Cam Newton keep the Patriots' dominance going?

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 5.

2020 NFL preview: No. 9 New England Patriots featuring quarterback Cam Newton
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

Bill Belichick must be a good poker player.

The New England Patriots have operated on a different plane than the rest of the NFL for about 20 years, and the Cam Newton situation was another example. The Chicago Bears panicked, trading a fourth-round pick for Nick Foles and giving him $21 million guaranteed on a restructured deal. The Indianapolis Colts handed Philip Rivers $25 million, even though there are serious doubts about him after his decline in 2019. The Los Angeles Chargers couldn’t break old NFL groupthink about quarterback and wrap their heads around adding Newton, a former MVP, despite a roster that is strong everywhere other than the game’s most important position. And so forth.

The Patriots and Belichick just patiently waited it out, understanding the market and the reality that no other team would see the value in adding Newton, even if it cost almost nothing. They never panicked, never flinched, seemingly content with Jarrett Stidham if it came to that. That’s how Newton ended up with an incentive-laden contract that has a base salary of just $1.05 million, with just $550,000 guaranteed. It’s amazing how the Patriots keep one step ahead of everyone else, year after year.

The sudden signing of Newton revived the Patriots’ hopes during an offseason of historic change. Tom Brady, who has put together the greatest resume for a quarterback in NFL history and did it all with the Patriots, left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Other key players left, too. The Patriots’ offense, which struggled late last season, still lacks in skill-position talent. If the Patriots are to add to their amazing streak of 11 consecutive division titles — matched in the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL only by the Atlanta Braves’ streak of 11 straight from 1995-2005 — it will be heavy on the shoulders of Belichick and his new quarterback.

Just because the Patriots outmaneuvered everyone in the quarterback market doesn’t mean Newton is guaranteed to work. Far from it. Newton has had a remarkable career, but we haven’t seen him play at a high level since the first half of the 2018 season. A shoulder injury affected him in the last half of 2018. A foot injury wiped out all but two ineffective games in 2019. Due to an unprecedented volume of rushing attempts with the Carolina Panthers, Newton is not the typical 31-year-old quarterback. Perhaps we’re already beyond Newton’s prime and we’ll never again see the player who helped redefine what the quarterback position could be. It’s worth the gamble for the Patriots to find out, considering there’s practically no risk at all. But it is a gamble.

The Patriots didn’t look like the Patriots late last season. New England lost four of its last six games after a 10-1 start. That included a shocking home loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 17 that cost the Patriots a first-round bye, and an offensively inept 20-13 loss to the Tennessee Titans on wild-card weekend. Then came an offseason that was light on additions and marked by the departure of Brady. There was so much doubt about the Patriots that some questioned if they were tanking for Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. That was absolutely nonsensical, but showed how little faith there was in New England during the offseason.

There will be questions if last season was the end of the Patriots’ dynasty, but we’ve heard those doubts before. This is a much different test though, without Brady around. If Belichick can pull this off, it will add another layer to a legacy that is already well established.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick speaks at the podium.
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has a new challenge this year. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
2020 season: Offseason grade
2020 season: Offseason grade

This section is always different for the Patriots than the other 31 teams. New England often loses the offseason on paper because they’re unconventional. They focus on finding the right fits rather than spending on big names. As we know, it works out just fine for them. Still, the Patriots lost key members of a strong defense: linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, defensive tackle Danny Shelton and safety Duron Harmon. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski is gone, too. Of course the big news was Tom Brady leaving, and months later the Patriots signed Cam Newton to replace him. New England didn’t have a first-round pick but four picks in the top 101: Lenoir-Rhyne S-LB Kyle Dugger, Michigan edge rusher Josh Uche, Alabama edge rusher Anfernee Jennings and UCLA TE Devin Asiasi. It’s hard to get excited about the Patriots’ offseason, but when has that mattered before?

GRADE: D-plus

2020 season: Quarterback report
2020 season: Quarterback report

It’s worth revisiting Bill Belichick’s words about Cam Newton in 2017 as we consider how the Patriots’ scheme will change to fit his strengths.

“I think when you’re talking about mobile quarterbacks, guys that are tough to handle, tackle, can throw, run, make good decisions — I mean, I would put Newton at the top of the list,” Belichick said three years ago, according to NBC Sports Boston.

“Not saying that there aren’t a lot of other good players that do that, but I would say, of all the guys we play or have played recently in the last couple of years, he’s the hardest guy to deal with. He makes good decisions. He can run. He’s strong. He’s hard to tackle. He can do a lot of different things, beat you in a lot of different ways. We saw that in the game down there in ’13, so I would put him at the top of the list.

“Not saying the other guys aren’t a problem, because they are, but he’s Public Enemy No. 1.”

2020 season: Most important non-QB
2020 season: Most important non-QB

Stephon Gilmore was a rare NFL defensive player of the year winner. He was the first Patriots player ever to win the award. He was the first cornerback to win since Charles Woodson in 2009, and Woodson was used all over the field. Before Woodson, the last cornerback to win was Deion Sanders in 1994. Gilmore allowed a remarkable 47.4 passer rating when in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus, the fourth-best mark in the league among cornerbacks with at least 350 coverage snaps. Gilmore was a fantastic free agent signing by the Patriots, and at age 29, he should be one of the NFL’s best for at least a couple more years.

2020 season: BetMGM odds breakdown
2020 season: BetMGM odds breakdown

When Cam Newton signed with the Patriots, their odds to win the Super Bowl, AFC and AFC East dropped, which was no surprise. Their win total didn’t move, however. The odds on the under changed dramatically, from -230 when it looked like Jarrett Stidham would start to -125 with Newton. The fact that BetMGM didn’t move the number itself means I like over 9.5, a play I liked even before Newton signed. It’s hard to imagine a Bill Belichick team falling apart.

2020 season: Yahoo's fantasy take
2020 season: Yahoo's fantasy take

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Julian Edelman enters his age-34 season, but if you excuse his playoff heroics, he’s more Hall of Very Good than Hall of Exceptional. He’s only scored more than six touchdowns in one season. He’s never made a Pro Bowl. His toughness has been the thing of legend — Super Bowl XLIX was a crowning achievement, not to mention what he did against the Rams four years later — but often that daredevil style has come at a price. He's played three full seasons out of 10 in the NFL.

“Edelman starts over in 2020 — presumably with Cam Newton, who also appears on the downside of his career. All of the wideouts in Edelman’s ADP neighborhood are younger, some considerably younger. I’d prefer to focus on someone on the front side of their career arc, someone still on the escalator.”

[Create or join a 2020 Yahoo Fantasy Football League for free today]

2020 season: Stat to remember
2020 season: Stat to remember

According to Football Outsiders Almanac, the Patriots had the biggest net loss on defense of any team over one offseason since 2003. That’s using Approximate Value, a stat created by Pro Football Reference. Even if you want to discount the AV stat, it’s hard to deny the Patriots lost a lot. The Patriots finished last season as the top defense in yards and points allowed, and also in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. It was a fantastic defense. It will be good again, but it will be incredibly tough to repeat as the No. 1 defense in the NFL. Everyone focused on Tom Brady moving on this offseason, and rightfully so, but that overshadowed the losses on defense.

2020 season: Burning question
2020 season: Burning question

Do the Patriots have enough around Cam Newton?

If this was any other team, we’d mock their skill-position depth. Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead are a solid running back committee because they play off each other’s strengths, but there’s no star. Michel hasn’t lived up to his first-round draft pedigree. Julian Edelman has had a great career, but he’s 34. The Patriots are very light at tight end, unless rookie third-round picks Devin Asiasi or Dalton Keene emerge rapidly. The key to the group is N’Keal Harry, a 2019 first-round pick who was limited to seven games and just 105 yards as a rookie. Harry has the ability to be a very good receiver, and the Patriots need him to take that step.

2020 season: Best case scenario
2020 season: Best case scenario

Imagine if Bill Belichick wins a Super Bowl without Tom Brady. He’s already the best NFL coach ever and probably the all-time greatest coach in any major American professional sport. To take Cam Newton, an entirely different style quarterback, and win with him would be remarkable. And it’s not too crazy to think it could happen. The Patriots won a Super Bowl two years ago. They were 10-1 at one point last season. If Newton is the right fit and the Patriots fill defensive holes like they always do, it’s still a quality team with a great coach. It would drive most NFL fans nuts, but we can’t discount the chance New England wins another Super Bowl.

2020 season: The nightmare scenario
2020 season: The nightmare scenario

The Patriots’ offense struggled last season. The Tennessee Titans practically dared the Patriots to score in that wild-card playoff game, and they couldn’t. The skill-position group is as thin as any in the NFL. The Patriots have always been able to maximize their talent on hand, but at some point, you need impact players. There’s also a chance Cam Newton simply doesn’t play well, because he doesn’t fit or his career is already in a sharp decline. It’s possible the offense could struggle and the defense, with a lot of key losses, won’t be able to carry them. The Patriots are a fixture in the playoffs, but maybe this is the season that streak ends.

2020 season: The crystal ball says ...
2020 season: The crystal ball says ...

If you keep picking the Patriots to fall off, eventually you’ll be right. However, predicting it has been a losing proposition for two decades. That’s why it’s hard to not pick the Patriots to win the AFC East. Still, since I have another AFC East team higher in these rankings, I’ll go down that road. The Patriots are still the gold standard of the NFL and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Cam Newton has a big year for them, but there are a lot of questions that need to be answered. And if the Patriots win the division again, they’ll surely remember every single instance of someone picking against them.

2020 season: Previous previews
2020 season: Previous previews

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