What does Cam Newton's return mean for Patriots' team-building approach?

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Phil Perry
·8 min read
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Perry: What Cam's return means for Pats' team-building approach originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Cam Newton released an Instagram video on Friday after news broke that he'd be returning to the Patriots. He tells the camera at one point that people shouldn't "sleep" on him in 2021. 

The contract he signed, though, serves as a reminder that people would be well within their rights to hit the snooze button on Newton's outlook for next season. Being guaranteed $3.5 million next season -- a number that could rise to $5 million should Newton be active for all 16 regular-season games, according to NFL Media -- means that Newton will be paid like a backup quarterback. If he hits a number of difficult-to-achieve incentives, the deal could balloon to $14 million.

Curran: Newton at least provides Pats with answer to 'Who's your QB?'

He was given a minimum-salary deal last season and ended up pulling in $3.75 million with incentives after starting 15 games, going 7-8. Bill Belichick said last season that Newton's contract was structured in that fashion because of the dire cap situation in which the team found itself at the time. But this year, with more than $60 million in cap space, Newton isn't guaranteed any more than he pulled in for 2020.

FLEXIBILITY TO ADD A BETTER QB... IF AVAILABLE

Newton's contract by no means guarantees him the starting quarterback gig in New England. The Patriots have more than enough cap space remaining to trade for a more expensive player -- Jimmy Garoppolo or Marcus Mariota, for example -- and between Newton and Jarrett Stidham they have only about $6 million in cap space tied up at the position.

The Patriots have the flexibility to add another well-paid quarterback, but it could get pricey fairly quickly depending on who they want to add.

For instance, trading for Garoppolo, who would carry a cap hit of about $25 million in New England, and keeping Newton would mean the cap hit for the Patriots at the quarterback spot would exceed $30 million. There are only six teams in the league currently scheduled to spend that much in cap space on the quarterback spot next season: Atlanta, Green Bay, Seattle, Minnesota, Tennessee and Detroit.

Trading for Garoppolo and releasing Newton before the season (eating $3.5 million in dead money) would cost the Patriots in the range of $29 million on the salary cap for 2021.

Trading for Mariota, who would carry a cap hit of about $11 million next season, and keeping Newton would result in a quarterback-room cap figure of about $17 million. Mariota is currently on an incentive-laden deal of his own with the Raiders, which means his payout could balloon to about $20 million if he reaches all his incentives in 2021. But the incentive-laden portion of Mariota's contract would not hit the salary cap in New England until 2022. 

While it's true that re-signing Newton does not preclude the Patriots from trading from either of the players mentioned above, it's also true that there's no guarantee that either player will ultimately be available to them.

Patriots Talk Podcast - Cam Newton returning to the Patriots on a one-year deal | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Mariota is on a roster that includes Derek Carr and Nathan Peterman at the moment so he should be available soon if not already. But if the Raiders can't strike a trade -- Mariota's contract incentives may spook teams -- then he may be released and would be able to choose his next landing spot.

Garoppolo is on a roster that should be competing for a championship next season so long as it has a capable passer. They remain loaded defensively and chalk full of offensive weaponry that would make Patriots quarterbacks of the last few seasons blush. If San Francisco can't find an upgrade for Garoppolo, it's hard to imagine he'd be available. And even if an upgrade does shake free, it may not occur until draft weekend, when the Niners could draft a young player they love or when a veteran could pop free because his team drafted someone it likes better (Sam Darnold? Teddy Bridgewater?). 

For the Patriots, that could mean waiting a long time for the dominoes to fall in such a way that they end up with a starter they like.

OUT ON FREE-AGENT OPTIONS?

The Patriots could, of course, add another quarterback in free agency. They have plenty of money. But Newton's signing makes that seem unlikely. 

An incentive-laden contract like the one Newton just signed would appear to be the type of deal one could expect players like Mitch Trubisky, Jacoby Brissett, Tyrod Taylor or Jameis Winston to sign this offseason.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, though he's into his late 30s, could command even more than those others because he's proven to be about a league-average performer after the last three seasons. Pro Football Focus projects he'll land a one-year deal in the $10 million range this offseason.

There's an argument to be made that any of those players would be worthwhile additions for the Patriots, but bringing back Newton is an indication that they liked him as the best in the bunch. He was also the only free-agent quarterback the Patriots could sign before the start of the new league year. Had the Patriots waited until Mar. 17 to try to ink one of the above names, there's no guarantee those players would've considered the Patriots the best landing spot for them. 

ADJUSTING DRAFT APPROACH?

Newton's signing could serve as a bit of hope for Patriots fans who would like the team to find the next long-term solution at quarterback in this year's draft.

Had the Patriots figured out a way to deal away valuable draft capital for a quarterback before the start of the new league year, spending another high-end pick on a quarterback might've been considered an over-the-top investment in one position for one offseason. 

Signing Newton on a short-term deal for low money means the position remains a long-term need. Should a player like Ohio State's Justin Fields or North Dakota State's Trey Lance become available to Belichick, Newton could be considered the ideal mentor as his style of play is not all that dissimilar to theirs. The plan could be for Newton to serve as a placeholder for a year, while a rookie develops and prepares to take over in Year 2 once Newton's deal has run out.

Edelman reacts to Cam's Patriots contract with Instagram message

The issue with that kind of plan is similar to the issue that looms over any potential trade: There's no guarantee the rest of the league allows the Patriots to do what they want. 

Fields could be a top-five pick. So too could Lance, who impressed at his pro day Friday. There are eight teams or more ahead of the Patriots in the draft order who could be interested in adding a quarterback. Leapfrogging those clubs for Fields or Lance could require an overpay of draft capital. 

Alabama's Mac Jones could be available to the Patriots in the first round, and though his style would be vastly different from Newton's, there would be a long-term plan in place for Belichick at the game's most important position: Play Newton in 2021 if he earns the job, build up the rest of the roster, then transition The Next Guy in 2022.

Because Newton's deal is a short-term pact, his presence shouldn't impact how the Patriots draft at other positions. Snagging nothing but road-grading offensive linemen and power backs who would complement a Newton-centric offense might not do the team much good if Newton is elsewhere as soon as 2022.

SPEND, SPEND, SPEND

If the Patriots can't land another quarterback in a trade, if they don't land the guy they want in the draft, if Newton ends up their best option for next season . . . they'll at least have enough in the way of cap dollars to buy the team some much-needed talent. 

There are 30 quarterbacks in the NFL slated to cost their teams more in cap space than Newton will his. That leaves all kind of room for big-money additions, including offensive weapons who would help Newton improve on his 2020, while also serving as solid long-term investments who would likely be with the team after Newton's time in New England is up. 

Big-bodied receivers -- the types with which Newton worked well in Carolina like Corey Davis, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marvin Jones, Breshad Perriman and Josh Reynolds -- will not be out of their price range. Newton also has experience playing with one of the top interior options in free agency, former Panther Curtis Samuel. Tight ends, even the upper-tier options, won't be out of the Patriots price range either. Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith and Gerald Everett all could be on the table.

Having Newton on a short-term, low-money deal should not make him the team's Plan A as their starting quarterback. But if there's a silver lining to Newton being their No. 1 in 2021, it's that as a one-year band aid, he'd allow the Patriots to maximize the roster around him, preparing it for The Next Guy.