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ben volin | on football

What to make of the Patriots signing Cam Newton and getting slapped with penalties

Cam Newton will have to be more judicious about scrambling if he wants to prolong his career.
Cam Newton will have to be more judicious about scrambling if he wants to prolong his career.Brian Blanco/FR170107 AP via AP

A quiet summer for the Patriots turned busy Sunday night when not one but two major stories broke: The Patriots are signing quarterback Cam Newton, and they were finally given their punishment for Spygate 2, the videotaping incident involving the Bengals in December.

Let’s take a closer look at these, which qualify as the second- and third-biggest stories of the Patriots offseason, behind Tom Brady leaving.

▪ I did not think the Patriots would bite on Newton. He was the most accomplished quarterback available this offseason, but I didn’t think he’d be a great fit in New England with Bill Belichick, given his injury history, playing style (career 59.6 completion percentage), and persona.

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Former Patriots executive Scott Pioli didn't expect it, either.

“In my mind, I don’t see those two coexisting together,” Pioli told CBS Sports Radio in May. “The personalities and beliefs of how the game should be played, it seems like oil and water. I just see them as being very different personalities and having very different approaches to the game.”

Scott Pioli, who helped Bill Belichick shape the Patriots into a champion, said earlier this year he didn't think Belichick and Cam Newton were a good fit.
Scott Pioli, who helped Bill Belichick shape the Patriots into a champion, said earlier this year he didn't think Belichick and Cam Newton were a good fit.Chin, Barry Globe Staff

But what Pioli and I forgot was that Belichick doesn’t really care about personality (see: Corey Dillon, Chad Ochocinco, Martellus and Michael Bennett, Antonio Brown, and on and on). Belichick cares about one thing: value. And Newton certainly brings it.

The Patriots got Newton on a one-year deal for the minimum, plus bonuses and incentives that could max it out at $7.5 million, per reports. If he is a flop in training camp, or if he doesn’t have a great year, they can cut bait with little to no cost.

But the upside is tremendous. They are getting a 31-year-old former NFL MVP with a huge chip on his shoulder. If Newton is good — he doesn’t even have to be great — the Patriots will be getting quality QB play at a backup’s price. Marcus Mariota, the Raiders’ backup quarterback, has $7.5 million guaranteed this season, plus $6 million in incentives.

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And if Newton is great, then the Patriots will have the steal of the century.

▪ Newton’s salary-cap number, the only number that really matters, will be an even better value. His minimum salary will be $1.05 million, and since he appeared in only two games last year, most of his bonuses and incentives won’t be counted toward the salary cap.

Newton’s cap number almost certainly will be in the $1.1 million-$1.4 million range. There are currently 50 NFL quarterbacks with a cap number of at least $1.5 million, including Andy Dalton ($3 million), Robert Griffin III ($2.5 million), Josh Rosen ($2.17 million), and Nathan Peterman ($2.13 million).

▪ I would be surprised if Newton isn’t the starting quarterback for Week 1; the $7.5 million maximum value speaks to the Patriots showing some confidence in him. Jarrett Stidham might get some playing time this year, but this definitely looks like Newton’s job to lose.

How will Jarrett Stidham react to the arrival of Cam Newton?
How will Jarrett Stidham react to the arrival of Cam Newton?Jim Davis/Globe Staff

No offense to Stidham, but the hype surrounding him this offseason was out of control. The Patriots may like him, but there’s no way Belichick was going to simply hand the starting job to a fourth-round pick who had thrown all of four NFL passes.

And no, the Patriots didn't sign Newton to give Stidham another year to develop. They signed Newton because they believe he gives them the best chance to win games in 2020.

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▪ The biggest question has to be his health. He had a shoulder injury in 2018 that cost him arm strength and prevented him from throwing for most of the 2019 offseason. Then he missed the last 14 games of the 2019 season after suffering a foot injury in the preseason (coincidentally, against the Patriots).

But time has been on Newton’s side. He had foot surgery in December, but has looked good in recent workout videos he posted to Instagram. His shoulder history, which also includes 2017 surgery on his rotator cuff, is more concerning. But he has had time to heal, and the Patriots obviously feel good enough about his health to give him a shot.

▪ Newton averaged 601 rushing yards and 7.3 rushing touchdowns per year in his eight healthy seasons, but he probably will have to adjust his playing style to protect his body. I would expect Josh McDaniels to craft the offense to Newton’s skills, which would include a heavy dose of play-action, deep crossers, and screen passes.

Newton is a physical specimen at 6 feet 5 inches, 245 pounds, but if he wants to extend his career, he’ll have to throw his weight around less and get out of harm’s way more. McDaniels may use Newton’s athleticism to roll him out of the pocket more than he did with Brady, but I wouldn’t expect many designed runs. And McDaniels will teach Newton to play safer.

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▪ Two players I think will enjoy playing with Newton: running back James White and receiver N’Keal Harry.

N'Keal Harry figures to benefit from Cam Newton's arrival.
N'Keal Harry figures to benefit from Cam Newton's arrival.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

In 2017 and 2018, Newton ranked fourth and ninth in percentage of pass attempts to running backs (about 25 percent). White is no Christian McCaffrey, but he should be a huge part of the Patriots’ passing attack.

And Newton has always done well with big, physical receivers like Harry (6-4, 225). Kelvin Benjamin (6-5, 245) had 136 catches, 1,949 yards, and 16 TDs in two years with Newton. Devin Funchess (6-4, 235) had 161 catches, 2,233 yards, and 21 touchdowns in four seasons.

▪ Veteran Damiere Byrd also probably is happy to see Newton come to New England. Byrd played with Newton from 2016-18, though he only caught 12 passes. But Byrd can fly — he ran a 4.28 in the 40 before his draft — and Newton has thrived with speedy receivers like Ted Ginn (1,491 yards, 14 touchdowns in two seasons). Byrd will have to win a roster spot, but Newton’s presence likely helps him out.

▪ As for the Spygate 2 punishments, it feels like NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent got it right this time. Most teams probably would have gotten a small fine and nothing more, but a criminal’s history almost always affects his sentencing, and the NFL had to do more to the Patriots given their past with Spygate and Deflategate. The Patriots admitted they broke the rules. They deserved to be punished, and this one was fair.

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Did Troy Vincent get the Patriots' punishment right?
Did Troy Vincent get the Patriots' punishment right?Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

The fine of $1.1 million don’t mean much. Losing a third-round pick hurts, but it doesn’t feel excessive given the Patriots’ cheating history. Third-round picks can produce Chase Winovich and Joe Thuney, but also Geneo Grissom, Vincent Valentine, and Antonio Garcia, who never played a snap.

▪ As for the timing, it’s possible that both news items just happened to occur on the same Sunday night in late June. It’s also possible that I have some valuable swampland in Florida to sell you.

My educated guess: The NFL actually worked with the Patriots on the punishment, as they seemingly did throughout the investigation.

There was no reason for the investigation to drag out for six months, other than to knock the story out of the sports conversation for a while and cut the Patriots a little slack.

And though the penalties may seem harsh, it certainly looks like the NFL allowed the Patriots to control the release of the news. My hunch is the Patriots found out weeks ago, but kept it in their back pocket until a significant news story popped up, like signing Newton.

Usually when something like this is announced, the NFL circulates a letter from Vincent outlining the discipline. There was no letter going around Sunday.

To be clear, I don’t blame the NFL if it worked with the Patriots, and I don’t blame the Patriots for trying to obfuscate the punishment news.

To quote some guy from around here: It is what it is.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin