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ben volin | on football

The pros and cons of bringing Cam Newton back to the Patriots

One thing Cam Newton excelled at in 2020 was running the ball; he had 592 yards and 12 touchdowns.
One thing Cam Newton excelled at in 2020 was running the ball; he had 592 yards and 12 touchdowns.Matthew J. Lee/Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

The Patriots agreed to a one-year deal with quarterback Cam Newton Friday morning, and it may not be the most popular move with the fan base. In an informal Twitter poll posted shortly after the news broke, only 31 percent of the vote went to “It’s the right move,” compared with 69 percent for “Are you kidding me?”

It’s easy to understand the fans’ frustration. The Patriots went 7-9 with Newton as the primary starter in 2020, missing the playoffs for the first time in 12 years and finishing below .500 for the first time in 20 years. The Patriots were boring on offense, finishing 27th in points and 30th in passing yards.

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But Newton wasn’t entirely bad, and in fact had several positive moments. If we take emotion out of it and just try to analyze the signing based on facts, I can think of just as many pros as there are cons.

Pro: Continuity is good. Newton, who turns 32 in May, is already established as a leader in the Patriots locker room. He has a rapport with the receivers and linemen. He was well-liked and has nicknames for everyone. He has a foundation with the offensive system.

Unlike last year, Newton will have a full offseason with the Patriots, and can build off his 2020 experience. The Patriots don’t have to start all over the way they would with a Ryan Fitzpatrick or Jameis Winston.

Con: What good is continuity if he can’t play? Newton was 20th among qualifying quarterbacks in yards per attempt (7.22), 25th in yards per game (177.1), and 28th in passer rating (82.9). Dak Prescott had more touchdown passes in five games (nine) than Newton did in 15 (eight), and three of Newton’s TD passes came in a meaningless Week 17 win.

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In a season in which NFL quarterbacks threw for a record number of passing yards, Newton averaged 177 per game and had 10 games under 200 (in which the Patriots went 5-5).

Pro: They need a quarterback entering free agency. It’s hard to sell a free agency plan when the only quarterback under contract is Jarrett Stidham. The Patriots needed a quarterback now, and while the 49ers haven’t made Jimmy Garoppolo available yet, Newton was sitting there, eager and ready to come back.

With Newton in the fold, the Patriots at least have some certainty at the most important position.

Con: But he won’t help recruit free agents if he isn’t any good. I can’t imagine that any of the top receivers in free agency saw Newton’s 2020 tape and said to themselves, “That’s my quarterback!” The Patriots will still have to overpay for any of the top guys.

Pro: Winning seven games was a decent achievement. Newton went 7-8 as a starter, which is actually pretty decent when you consider he had no offseason, no preseason, he was learning a new playbook, he got sidetracked by a bout of COVID-19 in October, and he unquestionably had the worst group of receivers and tight ends in the NFL.

It’s not crazy to think Newton could lead the Patriots to a few more wins and the playoffs if they beef up his supporting cast.

Con: He consistently came up short in big moments. Newton didn’t make many plays in the clutch. He got stuffed on the goal line on the final play against Seattle. He fumbled the game away against Buffalo. And he couldn’t finish the job against Denver or Houston.

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To be fair, Newton engineered an impressive last-minute comeback win over the Jets. But it was the Jets.

Pro: He’s cheap. Newton can make up to $13.5 million, per a copy of the contract obtained by the Globe, but that’s the best-case scenario. The contract is worth just $3.5 million guaranteed, with $10 million in incentives based on play time, playoff performance, Pro Bowl, All Pro and winning a Super Bowl.

Signing Newton now probably won’t stop the Patriots from pursuing a trade for Garoppolo if he becomes available, and definitely won’t prevent them from drafting a quarterback.

Con: He may not have much left in the tank: If Newton did sign for short money, it’s because no one else really wanted him. Multiple shoulder injuries have sapped him of his arm strength. One talent evaluator recently told me that Newton looked “done” last year. The Patriots obviously disagree.

Pro: The coaches seemed to genuinely love him. Bill Belichick spoke positively about Newton all season long, and it wasn’t an act. Two sources who have spoken to Belichick this offseason told me he raved about Newton and genuinely enjoyed coaching him.

After the news broke Friday morning, former Patriots quarterback coach Jedd Fisch tweeted that Newton is a “special person and a great player. Can’t wait to watch him excel this season!”

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Newton was a hard worker last year and did everything the Patriots asked of him.

Con: He got worse as the season progressed. One of the most disappointing aspects was Newton had some of his worst games late in the season, when he should, in theory, be playing his best football.

He threw for 84 yards in a lucky 20-17 win over the Cardinals. And he threw for 119, 209, and 34 yards in three straight blowout losses to the Rams, Dolphins, and Bills in December.

The Patriots entered December at 6-6 and squarely in playoff contention, yet Newton and the offense were noncompetitive in key games down the stretch.

Pro: He was a great runner last year. Newton finished with 592 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, and he was terrific in short yardage, converting first downs on 30 of 33 opportunities from 2 yards or closer. The Patriots ranked fourth in the NFL on third and short (less than 4 yards), converting 69.6 percent of the time.

Con: They had no downfield attack. Newton’s lack of arm strength and his deficiencies as a pocket passer limited the offense. The Patriots were tied for 29th in completions of 20-plus yards. They were 29th on third and long (7 yards or more). And they had the fewest “quick strike” touchdowns in the NFL, with one touchdown drive in fewer than four plays all season.

Pro: He was safe with the ball. Newton’s 11 giveaways, including just one fumble lost, tied for 18th-most among quarterbacks. His 10 interceptions tied his career low, set in his 2015 MVP season.

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Con: He doesn’t see the field well. Newton’s numbers don’t look quite as good on a per-pass basis. He threw the eighth-highest percentage of interceptions (2.7 percent of pass attempts) and had the sixth-highest sack percentage (7.8).

Clearly, there are enough pros here to bring Newton back on a low-risk, nonguaranteed contract. He buys the Patriots a little more time to figure out their long-term plan. But there are enough cons that the Patriots had better remain aggressive in the quarterback market.


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