Rust vs. Rest: Will Cam Newton return to fantasy greatness as a member of the New England Patriots?

For years, fantasy managers have debated the merits of a player who’s had time to heal a particular injury versus the overall deterioration that could occur during the rehab process. Whether it’s a veteran stud showing signs of decline or a young turk striving to bounce back from an upended season, FF enthusiasts are always weighing the pros and cons of time spent away from the field.

Given the COVID-related question marks surrounding this particular offseason and the durability concerns of some star competitors, I decided to get a professional medical opinion before drawing any conclusions. And so was conceived … Rust vs. Rest.

Cam Newton, QB, New England Patriots

In late September of 2017, while preparing to host the Panthers, Bill Belichick called Cam Newton “public enemy No. 1.” The vaunted HC praised the QB’s playing style, explaining, “He makes good decisions, can run. He’s strong. He’s hard to tackle. He can do a lot of different things. He can beat you in a lot of different ways.” New England would, in fact, get beat by Carolina. Ironically, it was one of just three losses the Pats suffered all season before being upset by the Eagles in Super Bowl LII.

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Belichick is certainly not the lone football genius beguiled by Newton’s mold-thwarting approach to the game. The current record-holder for the most career rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in the Super Bowl era (58), Newton burst onto the fantasy scene as a rookie, managing a top-three FF finish in 2011. Since then he’s been a top-four producer in five of the last eight seasons and has never (except for 2019) fallen outside of the top-15 players at the position.

As such, Newton in New England must be a win for everyone, right? Belichick gets to experiment with a wildly physical and thunderous rusher whose skill set is massively divergent from that of his former QB’s. Newton gets to join one of the most winning franchises in NFL history while mounting a personal comeback alongside the most respected football mind of our time. And fans of the virtual game regain the opportunity to roster a league winner.

Well, we hope.

The worry with Cam Newton

See, 2019 can’t just be erased as some sort of statistical outlier. What makes Cam so special — part of what Belichick noted back in 2017 — is his physicality and willingness to put his body in harm’s way. Over time that athletic boldness has resulted in a catalog of injuries, most recently including back-to-back surgeries on his throwing shoulder, and a foot injury that sidelined him for nearly the whole of last year.

To better understand the extent of Cam’s injuries and conceptualize the likelihood of a comeback, I (again) enlisted the help of Dr. Alex Weber, an orthopedic surgeon and team physician for the USC Trojans. According to Dr. Weber, the lisfranc sprain sustained by Newton in Week 2 of the 2019 preseason is more concerning than the shoulder injury.

Here’s why:

While it’s clear that the partial thickness rotator cuff tear that Cam suffered in 2016 negatively affected his play, the standout QB was able to come back in 2017 after undergoing offseason surgery (on March 30th) and pass for over 3,300 yards and 22 TDs (remember, this was Devin Funchess SZN). Newton next began his 2018 campaign in peak form, completing 68.7 percent of his passes and managing a 7.2 YPA over the first nine games of the season. In Week 10, however, he took a hard hit courtesy of T.J. Watt, which aggravated the shoulder issue and caused a premature ending to what many believed to be a career effort.

Cam Newton (1) quarterback of Carolina
No longer in a Panthers uniform, what will Cam Newton bring to the Patriots in 2020? (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Even though Newton technically went under the knife in early 2019, Dr. Weber is quick to point out that the procedure was a “clean-out” meant to take care of some scar tissue and that there “wasn’t anything structurally that needed to happen in the shoulder.” The doctor, therefore, concluded that both of these surgeries were “very effective” and is not overly concerned about the shoulder becoming a recurrent issue.

The lisfranc issue, however, is more complicated, as it can be a “negative predictor” for on-field effectiveness and career length.

Per Dr. Weber: “From a pure medical perspective, lisfranc injuries put football athletes into a high-risk category for having additional problems and shortened careers.”

He explains, “The lisfranc ligament holds the bones of the foot in appropriate alignment. When it is completely ruptured, the alignment of the bones shifts. A surgery is performed to stabilize the ligament and line the bones back up. However, some athletes who then return to sport after rehabbing their surgery can again get widening of the bones, which would indicate that the surgical fixation has loosened up over time. If that’s the case — if a loosening up has occurred — those players are more likely to experience diminished longevity in the league.”

But when I asked Dr. Weber specifically about the Pats’ new signal caller he said, “I see Cam having a really good year.”

Say what?

Superman’s (fantasy football) hope

Apparently, Newton’s lisfranc injury was of the “stable” variety; even though the ligament was damaged it didn’t completely rupture, which means the bones didn’t shift out of alignment. According to Dr. Weber, since the nature of the injury was such that there wasn’t displacement to begin with, Cam’s rehab could be accelerated ... and he believes Newton to be at “100 percent going into the season.”

Since the injury took place at the top of the 2019 season Cam has had time to rehab the issue. Ultimately, he decided to have the malady surgically repaired. Dr. Weber concluded this action was taken to reassure everyone — but mostly Cam — that the foot was perfectly sturdy and could be trusted. Basically, the rest worked in Newton’s favor, affording him the time to physically heal and the space to mentally prepare. Furthermore, because we know him to be a next-level athlete in possession of elite measurables, the rust is not a concern.

That’s not to say that Cam couldn’t get hurt at some point during 2020. After all, his playing style is one that invites injury. But any bump or bruise or twist or tweak is unlikely to be linked to a recurrent issue. After speaking to Dr. Weber, I’m expecting Cam to pick up where he left off in 2018. He is, lest we forget, on a one-year bare-minimum deal. And to that end, the Patriot Way certainly includes squeezing every ounce of upside out of veteran players.

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That’s why I’m not afraid of being bullish on Cam’s comeback campaign and have him ranked as my QB11… just one spot behind his predecessor. Newton’s presence breathes fantasy life into much of the Pats’ offense but there’s little doubt that RB James White and WR N’Keal Harry are the biggest benefactors, teeming with the most possibility.

While White is no Christian McCaffrey, he is a pass-catching specialist who averaged 43 receiving yards per game (RB3) and managed RB2 fantasy numbers in 2019. His activity in the red zone also comes via the air, not the ground (just two goal-line carries in 2019), which means he’s unlikely to be vultured by Cam at the goal line, but certainly utilized as a safety valve in the passing game. For reference, Newton targeted McCaffrey an average of seven times per contest in 2017 and 2018. Similar aerial deployment would keep White on the RB2/RB3 bubble in PPR friendly formats, making his current eighth-round ADP a solid value.

If White was one of Brady’s most trusted receivers, Harry was not. Admittedly, his rookie year was a bust. He had a rough camp, got injured in the preseason, and opened Week 1 on IR. Noting the lost practice time, lack of on-field reps, and limited ability to develop chemistry with TB12, it makes sense that he wasn’t effective. But given the aforementioned changes in Foxborough — primarily, the addition of a passer with a penchant for throwing up deep looks and trusting a physical outside threat to crush at the catch-point — Harry has an opportunity to establish himself as the team’s best red-zone threat. A player with first-round draft pedigree, a breakout age in the 95th percentile, and the ability to win in contested situations, I anticipate Harry drawing at least 80 targets and clearing seven scores.

There are, of course, no guarantees that Cam can steel himself against injury and lift the Patriots in a post-Tom Brady era. But if ever there were a super man with the physical power to save this franchise from falling off a cliff it would be Cam(-El).

Which Patriots are you targeting in 2020? Let Liz know on social @LizLoza_FF.

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