Point After: A closer look at Cam Newton’s free agency

Newton is set to become a free agent on March 17.

Will Cam Newton return to New England? Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Between now and the start of the new league year in March, we’ll put some of the Patriots’ most notable unrestricted free agents under the microscope. We started with James WhiteJoe Thuney,  Lawrence Guy, and Nick Folk. Today, we move on to Cam Newton.

Quarterback Cam Newton

Age: Turns 32 in May.

Resume: In his first year in New England, without the benefit of a full offseason, the former NFL MVP had strong games out of the gate — including a stellar performance in a September loss against Seattle — but was wildly inconsistent down the stretch. A bout with COVID and injuries to significant pieces like Julian Edelman, David Andrews, and Rex Burkhead didn’t help. He finished with career lows (as a starter) in completions, passing yards, and touchdowns as the team finished 7-9. (On the plus side, he set a new franchise record for most rushing yards in a season for a quarterback with 592.)


I’m hesitant to call 2020 an out-and-out failure for Newton, as he was impacted by so many things that were simply beyond his control. Yes, he fell short of expectations, but there was also a real lack of planning on the part of Bill Belichick when it came to the start of the post-Tom Brady era, an error that left Newton being asked to do more with less far too often. Between planning and execution, there was more than enough blame to go around, at least in relation to the passing game. In the end, 2020 didn’t turn out like the team — or the quarterback — had hoped.


The market: This offseason will be absolutely epic when it comes to the quarterback market, both in free agency and the draft, and Newton will undoubtedly be impacted. When you take Newton’s 2020 performance into account — whether it was health or the struggles of trying to get acclimated to a new system with a truncated offseason — you have to imagine he’ll be at the back end of the pay scale.

Franchise tag? Given the Patriots’ current situation, Newton’s level of play in 2020, and this year’s quarterback landscape, the tag seems unlikely.

Should they re-sign him? No one is quite sure of Newton’s self-assessment. He said he’s not retiring, and he believes there aren’t 32 quarterbacks better than him. But does he believe he should still command something close to former MVP money? Does he consider himself a default starter when it comes to, say, three-quarters of the league? Or is he willing to compete for a job as part of an incentive-laden deal? All questions he has to consider before he and his reps sit down with any other team out there.


In terms of how this relates to the Patriots, one of the most palatable scenarios — if he does return — is as the bridge quarterback, a transitional signal-caller who maneuvers them through the post-Brady era to whatever is next, either via trade, free agency or the draft. Regardless, the decision on Newton doesn’t take place in a vacuum. But if you’re the New England brain trust,  you’re not going to extend yourself too far for him if/when you talk about a potential deal for 2021 or beyond.

Will they re-sign him? The biggest question of all. There are an awful lot of smart people out there who are saying a return for 2021 isn’t out of the question. According to our guy Ben Volin, Belichick continues to preach positivity about the quarterback, while the quarterback has returned the nice words. Does it mean anything, at least in relation to 2021? Probably not much. But it could be a small indication that if it all goes awry on both sides, and they’re both without partners when June rolls around, one could give the other a call. (Insert Jim Carrey’s “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?” meme here.)


Analysis: How much time do you have?

Even if you remove the Patriots from the picture, Newton’s future is a fascinating one. Where does he fit? Were last year’s struggles an outlier for him, or is it the beginning of the end for the former MVP? Given what we saw from him in 2020, our bet is that it’s somewhere in between — he’ll never be the 2015 Cam again, but he’s also not completely done. He just needs more pieces around him than he had in the past.

Newton said all the right things in New England. His nicknames were a fun story. He praised Belichick and the coaching staff. (Even though the coach/GM failed to provide him with any sort of depth at receiver.) He won the Media Good Guy Award. He was in the building early and stayed late, even when it was clear the Patriots’ path to the postseason had become an overgrown and impossible to navigate thicket. Even now, a couple of months removed from the end of the season, he’s continuing to make a point of praising the franchise, saying on the “I Am Athlete” podcast that Belichick was the most “misunderstood person in all of sports.” If he’s done, he’s taking the highest road possible on the way out of town.


So where does that leave things? I would love to see what a healthy Newton might be capable of in New England, with a full offseason and a worthy collection of offensive talent around him. But the best scenario for Newton could very well be a short-money reunion in Washington with his former Panthers coach Ron Rivera. The WFT is parting ways with Alex Smith, and while he certainly outperformed expectations in the playoffs, I’m not sure Taylor Heinecke is capable of carrying a team over a full season. There’s a comfort level between Newton and Rivera. A move like that would allow the quarterback and the team to hit the reset button, and let the Patriots get a little further over that quarterback bridge to the next big thing.


LUCKY 13: Ben Volin takes a look at the salary-cap situations for the Patriots highest-paid players, plus all eight of the returning opt-outs, some of whom probably won’t make the team.

MARSHALLING IN: Jim McBride caught up with former NFL receiver Brandon Marshall, whose House of Athlete is in the spotlight this week as he attempts to help fill the void left by the NFL canceling its annual Scouting Combine by hosting a mini-combine for draft hopefuls.

ALIAS TB: Terry Bradshaw’s alias in checking into a Louisiana hospital on March 3, 1983? Thomas Brady. Chad Finn has more on the story that came to light earlier this week.

LOVE CAM: Add wide receiver N’Keal Harry to the list of Patriots endorsing quarterback Newton’s return to the team next season. Unable to work out with any of his teammates this offseason, Harry has been spending time with a machine called the “Seeker.” Nicole Yang has more.

GOING TO MIAMI: Patriots communications strategist Anne Noland is leaving the organization to become senior director of football communications for the Miami Dolphins. Yang has more.

RATING THE ROOKIES: Judging any player after one year is unfair, and that’s particularly true for this group, which didn’t get its first taste of true game action until the regular season because the exhibition slate was canceled. McBride offers a snapshot review of New England’s 2020 rookie class.

HERE’S THE SCOOP: Have a young writer in your life? The Sports Museum is now accepting entries for the 2021 Will McDonough writing contest. Find out how to enter here.

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