Lazar: There’s No QB Competition in New England if Cam Newton is Healthy

The Patriots made another splash by signing former Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to a one-year deal on Sunday.

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There’s never a dull moment in New England, and as the dust settles from Sunday night’s shocking news, we’ve had time to process that Cam Newton is a Patriot. 

The Newton signing, or a veteran quarterback acquisition, was something that the team internally debunked all offseason as they put their support behind 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham. 

But Newton’s asking price dropped, his only formal contract offer was from Bill Belichick and the Patriots, and that paved the way for an unlikely pairing that now makes too much sense. 

There are two plausible scenarios here: either Newton beats out Stidham for the starting job and takes the reins or Stidham wins the job and Newton is there just in case things go awry later. 

If healthy, early indications are that Newton will start over Stidham this season, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the second-year quarterback even if it feels like a step back. 

Film Review: What Kind of Quarterback Do the Patriots Have in Jarrett Stidham?

We’ve broken down Stidham’s strengths all offseason, including film reviews of an impressive 2019 preseason where he showed off his arm talent and ability to read out coverages. 

However, retired offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia brought up the “growing pains” the Patriots will go through with a young quarterback in a radio interview last week that resonates even more now. 

At the root of Scar’s answer was that Stidham, who held onto the ball for an average of 2.77 seconds and took nine sacks last August, has a propensity to hold onto the ball for too long in the pocket. 

If Stidham qualified as a regular-season starter a year ago, his 2.77-second average time to throw would’ve ranked second-to-last among starting quarterbacks in 2019. 

After a few months of a virtual offseason with evidence from his 2019 preseason tape as well, it’s possible that Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels doesn’t think Stidham is ready. 

Remember, the team intended to re-sign Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady in free agency and were expecting Stidham to have at least one more year to learn as the GOATs backup. 

Now, the Patriots are potentially back on their original Stidham timeline with Newton in the fold for the 2020 season.

If Cam starts or Stidham is the starter to begin the season but falters, then Newton is there to save the season a la Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee a year ago.

In 2019, the Titans traded a sixth-round pick for Tannehill on a re-worked contract to push starter Marcus Mariota.

Mariota and Stidham are at different stages of their careers. But Tannehill’s renaissance where he was the third-best quarterback in the NFL based on Pro Football Focus’s grading is a best-case-scenario for Newton and New England. 

Our dream scenario: Newton balls out in 2020 on a bargain deal, the Pats make a run in the playoffs, Cam gets paid in free agency, and Belichick recoups a 2021 draft pick while Stidham waits in the wings, as is tradition. 

Now Belichick likely won’t pay up for Newton as the Titans did with Tannehill this offseason, a questionable move given the former Dolphins quarterback’s much larger sample of subpar play. 

But Newton jump-starting his career at age 31, which is still prime years for a quarterback, could net the Patriots a high compensatory pick in the draft if Newton cashes out next offseason. 

After reviewing Newton’s tape from the last two seasons, here are three more proclamations: 

First, there’s nothing wrong with Newton’s surgically repaired throwing shoulder that has been an issue for the former NFL MVP since rotator cuff surgery in March of 2017 (last season’s foot injury, on the other hand, is another story).

Second, Newton’s style of play, especially in Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s offense since 2018, isn’t that far off from the system we’ve seen in New England with Brady. 

Third, if Cam Newton is healthy, there will be no quarterback competition in Foxboro this summer. In time, Jarrett Stidham could develop into a viable NFL starter. But Newton is a legitimate NFL superstar at full strength that still has plenty left in the tank. He’ll be the guy.

CAM STILL HAS A ROCKET ARM

To back up my first proclamation about Newton’s arm strength, let’s take a look at the 2019 season that many wrote off because Newton struggled due to injury. 

The former Panthers star suffered a Lisfranc injury to his left foot in a preseason contest against the Patriots last August and tried to fight through it before shutting things down after two starts. 

In those two starts, Newton only managed to complete 56.2 percent of his passes while averaging 6.4 yards per pass attempt with a lousy 21.1 QBR and 48.5 PFF grade (out of 100). 

Although his foot was a major inhibitor to his success (more on that later), the narrative that Newton’s shoulder is shot to the point where he can’t zip throws down the field is false. 

Here’s all the evidence you need from Carolina’s season opener against the Rams. The Panthers run a vertical passing concept called “all curls” that has a clearout vertical from inside slot receiver (no. 3). The defense drops into a cover-two shell with the outside corners sitting at 12 yards in their zones. At the bottom of the screen, Newton is going to work a comeback route to D.J. Moore. Newton uses an extra hitch step in the pocket to avoid the edge rush and moves the boundary corner with his eyes and shoulders off of Moore. Then, from the far hash, Newton uncorks an accurate pass for a completion. Noodle arms can’t make that throw. 

Along with arm strength, Newton has great instincts to move defenders with his eyes, sense pressure in the pocket, and read defenders’ leverage to throw away from coverage. 

Former teammate Greg Olsen explained in a recent interview that Newton doesn’t get enough credit for being a brilliant football mind. 

“I don’t think people really realize just how much he understands the game and how well he sees the field,” Olsen said. He does things innately that don’t necessarily come naturally to all quarterbacks. He sees things. He feels things. He just has a sense of the bigger picture on the field.”

Here’s another example of Newton’s arm being just fine and his great football IQ. This time, he hits a deep dig route against a closing cover-two safety with six-time Pro Bowler Aaron Donald in his face. On the play, Newton sees the half-field safety open towards the field at the top of his pedal to protect against a vertical route. When the safety opens his hips in retreat, Newton knows that he can get the ball to his dig route because the safety won’t have time to change directions. Newton anticipates his receivers’ break getting the pass out before Moore cuts on the dig route, and delivers a bullet to his wideout as Donald unloads on him in the pocket. It’s not easy to hold off that kind of hit and still deliver a throw on a line. 

The narratives are already swirling that Newton’s body is broken and he’s incapable of being a legitimate starter, but it’s not his shoulder, or his arm strength, that held him back in 2019. 

CAM’S ACCURACY ISSUES EXPLAINED 

Although Newton’s arm strength and shoulder weren’t an issue, his downfield accuracy took a major hit last season and his left foot injury was a major reason why. 

In a study done by For the Win’s Steven Ruiz, Ruiz isolated all of Newton’s misses to find an interesting trend about the routine throws that the Patriots quarterback wasn’t hitting. 

As Ruiz explains here, the majority of Newton’s misses came on throws to his right, and more specifically, to his right outside the numbers where overthrows were a significant problem. 

On throws to his right, Newton had an on-target percentage of 54.5 percent and a completion rate of only 45.5 percent. Throwing to his left, those figures were 84.8 and 75.8 respectively. 

Newton couldn’t throw accurately last season mostly because he wasn’t comfortable putting force on his injured foot (lead) forcing his lower half to open early and Cam to lose control of the football. 

The former Heisman Trophy winner’s throwing mechanics have long been an issue dating back to the 2011 draft, and the Panthers tried to rework his mechanics in 2018 to lessen the stress on his shoulder. 

Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner wanted to prevent Newton from “arm” throwing by having a better weight transfer through his release and getting him to start moving his hips before his arm, generating most of his throw power from his lower body (Brady is amazing at this). 

In the first half of the 2018 season, Carolina went 6-2 and Newton was in the running once again for league MVP thanks to tweaks to his mechanics and the success of Turner’s scheme with the Panthers’ personnel. 

Before re-injuring his shoulder in Week 10 on a direct hit to the area, Newton was 11th in Pro Football Focus’s grading among quarterbacks. After re-injury, his grade plummeted to 32nd. 

If you watch Newton’s 2019 film, you’ll see overthrows like this one all over the place. Newton once again makes a great leverage read to see the outside corners’ inside positioning and back to the sideline while he knows his receiver is running a corner pattern. Newton knows the receiver will be open, he even anticipates and lets it fly early. But he misses an open receiver badly because he opens his hips too soon putting all the stress on his arm to get the ball there since he won’t transfer his weight onto his lead foot. 

Here’s an audio breakdown of Newton’s throwing motion compared to Tom Brady’s impecable throwing mechanics. The difference in how the two generate velocity and their release points explain why one is a very accurate quarterback (Brady) and the other struggles with downfield ball placement (Newton). 

In the past, Newton got away with inconsistent accuracy thanks to a high rate of big-time throws and the value he adds to the offense with his running abilities. 

But since his body is in decline and he is making fewer “wow” throws, the Panthers offense felt the effects of Cam’s accuracy struggles more in recent seasons. 

If healthy, Newton’s throwing mechanics should return to 2018 form where his motion was more efficient and only took a step back again in 2019 due to injury. 

HOW THE OFFENSE STAYS THE SAME WITH CAM

Newton is known for his highlight-reel runs, but Carolina ran an Earnhardt-Perkins system since 2012 and Newton worked in a pro-style EP setup with Turner over the last two years. 

The Patriots would change their running game to utilize Newton’s athleticism, but the verbiage and passing concepts from Carolina’s EP scheme should resemble the Patriots’ EP offense. 

Newton was making middle of the field open versus middle of the field closed reads, working option routes with his receivers, and hunting matchups in the same vein as Brady with the Pats. 

Turner’s still ran vertical concepts that play to Newton’s strengths but focused more on the intermediate areas of the field and Newton’s average depth of target was a career-low 7.1 yards in 2018, per Next Gen Stats. 

For those that think the Patriots are getting a scrambler that holds onto the ball, Newton’s average time to throw in 2018 was a pretty brisk 2.50 seconds with Turner calling plays. 

The ball routinely came out on time with Newton over the last two seasons, and he isn’t a slow processor that wants to spend an eternity in the pocket. Even in his MVP season, Newton’s average time to throw was around the NFL average (2.61 seconds).

In fact, Newton is actually worse as a passer in scrambling situations or when the play breaks down. Since 2016, Newton has been a more efficient passer on quick throws and “in rhythm” passes than on extended plays in scramble mode and seldom attempted passes outside the pocket (92 percent in pocket).

Newton set a career-high in completion percentage by throwing shorter passes that take more precision and was statistically superior in 2018 to Brady’s 2019 campaign on quick throws, but his short passing game looks different than Brady’s go-to plays. 

Let’s start with arguably Newton’s best route as a thrower, a comeback. On the play, Newton works a comeback route at the bottom of the screen against a corner playing off-coverage in a cover-two scheme. As soon as Newton hits the top of his drop, he begins his throwing motion with the receivers’ back still to the quarterback. Due to his arm strength and anticipation, Newton is able to complete this pass despite the corner getting a good break on the ball with his eyes on the QB in zone coverage.

Here’s a leverage throw off of a vertical “choice” route concept. The Panthers run four receivers vertically upfield with three of them breaking off curl routes. As Newton drops, he gets a middle of the field closed look from the defense, and knows his best bet is to attack one of the hook/curl defenders rather than the vertical up the shoot (would be an option if MOF open). In his drop, Newton reads the defender over number two to the trips side (Olsen) moving inside of his tight end. Olsen has a bit of an option here. He can turn in, out, or sit based on the coverage. With the defender moving inside of him, Olsen turns out, and Newton hits him for the completion. Think option routes by Julian Edelman in the middle of the field. 

Here’s a formation and route that we see all of the time from the Patriots as they hunt matchups for their playmakers. To Newton’s left, the offense puts Moore in a tight split to give him space along the sideline against man coverage with safety help in the middle of the field (MOF closed). Moore goes with a fade release to let himself take advantage of all the space created by his alignment, Newton reads the corner staying over the top and pulls the string to complete a back-shoulder throw. Now, substitute Moore on the back shoulder for N’Keal Harry. 

Another area where Newton and the Patriots both excel is with play-action. In 2018, Newton’s 117.1 passer rating off of play-action was third-best among starting quarterbacks.

On this play, Newton shows both his prowess off of play-action and that his arm is not broken with one of his favorite concepts: play-action with a “quick” post from tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen and Newton both made several Pro Bowls off of this concept, where the offense will get the linebackers to read run with the fake leaving Olsen one-on-one with no underneath help on a post pattern. Once again, Newton moves the linebacker dropping underneath the route out of the passing lane with his eyes (no. 51), and delivers a rocket to Olsen who takes over after the catch for a huge gain. 

Lastly, Cam quickly became infatuated with throwing passes to Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, similarly to how the Pats use James White and Rex Burkhead in the passing game. 

Since entering the league in 2017, McCaffery leads all running backs in receptions and receiving yards with most of those passes coming from the Patriots’ new quarterback. 

On this play, the Packers think they have Newton and the Panthers figured out as linebacker Clay Matthews calls out a wheel route to McCaffrey. Newton hears Matthews on the other side of the line, changes McCaffrey’s route to an angle route over the middle, and hits his running back for six. 

New England can still attack the middle of the field through the air with option routes from slot receivers, play-action passes, and throws to their tight ends and running backs with Newton at quarterback. He’s actually at his best on those types of plays. 

Although Cam won’t take many snaps under center, the Patriots can run most of their staple passing concepts with Newton and still get the same openings as we saw with Brady. 

HOW THE OFFENSE CHANGES WITH CAM 

Assuming Newton is healthy, the Patriots offense should change pretty significantly to incorporate Cam’s running abilities, posing a new threat to defenses. 

After years of scheming without a mobile quarterback, Josh McDaniels has longed for a QB that allows him to play 11-on-11, or plus-one in the run game, because of the schematic advantages. 

During the 2018 season, Turner incorporated read-options and RPOs, although they weren’t as big of a part of the plan as you’d expect; Newton is way more than an option quarterback.

In fact, the Panthers were only slightly above league-average in RPO usage in Cam’s last almost-fully healthy season at 10.5 percent (league average – 7.8 percent). 

Newton does take most of his snaps in shotgun (88 percent) which will mean he’ll either need to conform to New England’s under center schemes or vice versa. 

Still, there’s no denying that a healthy Newton is extremely effective in these schemes, starting with read-option plays that often have Cam as the primary ball carrier. In 2018, Newton averaged 5.1 yards per rush on 36 read-option carries. 

The Patriots are more of a power/man blocking team, and so was Carolina, as Newton’s running style fits more of a vertical run game rather than a horizontal attack with zone-read plays, although he is good at those too. 

On this run, the Panthers have a GT counter setup with two pullers, a power play. The offense is going to leave the defensive end to Newton’s left unblocked as a read defender. If he crashes, as he does here, Newton will take off around the edge. If he stays, the offense has double team blocks on the interior that should open up a lane for a give to the running back. 

The defense wants to be plus-one in the box. Without the threat of the QB, the defense would have eight defenders in the box against seven blockers here, a losing formula for the offense. 

But Newton evens the numbers again, forcing the defense to play seven-on-seven on the running back (disadvantage) or vacate the edge leaving the ally open for Newton (also a disadvantage) to reclaim the numbers on the handoff.

From there, the Patriots can also incorporate run-pass options that have three threats to the defense: a handoff to the running back, a QB keeper, or a pass to a receiver. 

As we mentioned, the Panthers used RPOs on 10.5 percent of their plays in 2018, and Newton’s numbers were extremely impressive on his 34 pass attempts. 

Newton completed 70.6 percent of his RPO pass attempts with a passer rating of 115.3 and an elite PFF grade of 90.8. Plus, he averaged 7.0 yards per rush on RPOs as well (13 attempts). 

Here’s one of Carolina’s go-to RPO concepts with a power (guard pull) run option paired with a glance route on the single receiver side and slant-flat to the two receiver side of the formation. As Newton reads it, the linebacker to his right steps up to play the run, opening up the passing lane to the glance route on the backside. Newton puts the ball on his receiver for a touchdown. 

Another run-pass option the Pats could take from the Panthers offense is an RPO seam with a zone-read action between the QB and running back. On the play, Newton can give, keep or throw depending on the post-snap movement by the defense. As the tight end releases up the seam, the edge defender over him has to account for Newton in the running game. With both ‘backers flowing with the outside zone action, it leaves Greg Olsen uncovered for a chunk play.

Over the last two offseasons, the Patriots began building an offense that would work best with a mobile quarterback, even if the QB has slightly above-average athleticism like Stidham. 

The draft selections of wide receiver N’Keal Harry (YAC monster) and tight ends Devin Asiasi (vertical, in-line TE) and Dalton Keene (H-back) give them big-bodied pass catchers that can move around the formation, create with the ball in their hands, and are versatile blockers. 

If New England wants to flood the field with tight ends, fullbacks, and H-backs to win with a potent rushing attack and play-action passing game, Newton’s mobility only helps that formula. Plus, defenses will need to account for Cam with spies or contained pass rushes, which could lead to more zone coverage and less press-man for New England’s receivers. 

Newton will need to stay healthy and beat out Stidham in camp, but the offense built by Bill Belichick in recent offseasons is an excellent fit for the former league MVP.