It's happening. We're here. And I think a lot of people feel the same way you do, John.
It'll undoubtedly be strange for a large swath of the country not to see Tom Brady trotting onto the field in a Patriots jersey. But my guess is that people will warm up to Newton quickly. It already seems to be happening with some of the messages he's shared (and the messages his teammates and coaches have shared about him) in press conferences.
He's himself. Confident. Loose. But he's also been vulnerable, acknowledging the difficulties of this offseason and pointing out just how much this opportunity means to him. He's clearly motivated. He's also healthy -- which is more than a subplot to this team's 2020 story. With his health, so go the Patriots' chances this year. His shoulder looked fine all through training camp. Same could be said for his foot.
And he'll be plopped in a scheme that is going to suit his skill set, designed by a couple of the brightest minds in football. Remember, the last time we saw Newton healthy, in a new scheme, he put together a borderline MVP-caliber first half of 2018. Dealing with a banged-up wing late that year, he still finished that season completing 68 percent of his passes. Quick throws. Designed quarterback runs. Misdirection. Bootleg passes. Option football. Two-back runs.
This is an opportunity for Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels and Newton to paint an oeuvre that'll leave a lasting impact on each of their respective legacies. It has to be exciting for them. And even though it may take a moment for Patriots fans to get accustomed to Tom Brady being in Tampa Bay, my prediction is it'll soon be exciting for them as well.
Tom and I disagree to an extent on this one, Ken! We've talked about it quite a bit on the Patriots Talk podcast and elsewhere, but I think Newton is probably a better fit for this offense than Tom Brady would've been due to its personnel.
But to answer your question, there are a bunch of names to consider. They'll have oodles of cap space, even with the cap set to drop. Dak Prescott will be the biggest name available, if he gets to free agency. But that seems unlikely. The receiver group is loaded. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Godwin and Allen Robinson would be atop most teams' lists. But it also includes Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay, Will Fuller, Corey Davis and Sammy Watkins. There's only going to be so much money to go around, and if the Patriots want to get more explosive, I'd start at that position.
Of course they have plenty of their own guys to re-sign, if they can do it. Here's a list of some of their 2021 free agents: Joe Thuney, James White, Lawrence Guy, David Andrews, Jason McCourty, Adam Butler, Jermaine Eluemunor and Rex Burkhead. Oh yeah. And Newton.
Would they be willing to give him what he's looking for if he has a very good season and gets them to the playoffs? Might have to approach (exceed?) $30 million per year, given where the market has gone.
OK, instead of dropping the obvious "Cam Newton," I'll go with "their offensive line."
It ain't sexy. But for the offense to succeed, a) Newton needs some time, particularly in the drop-back passing game on third down, and b) they need to be able to run the ball efficiently. If they suffer injuries up front the way they did last year, that would have a domino effect that would render this group pretty punchless. Tall task in front of them after having lost Dante Scarnecchia, but they'll need to be very good in 2020.
What Jermaine Eluemunor -- or whoever ends up the long-term answer at right tackle -- can give them will quickly go from an under-the-radar storyline to a 70-point headline if it doesn't work out.
Disastrous? I think that's too strong. Difficult? Yes. Especially early.
Since well before Brady signed in Tampa Bay, I spoke to a number of people in and around the NFL much smarter than me. The consensus? I'll paraphrase: There's no way Brady leaves and DOESN'T run the Patriots offense. Sounds like that's exactly what's happening, though.
The Bruce Arians scheme in Tampa values risk, and Brady has been -- to his detriment at times, he's admitted -- a very risk-averse quarterback. For two decades he preferred to take an easy five yards rather than gambling with a 30-yard attempt into coverage. Can he change? Will Arians demand that he does?
Brady is also learning a new language and new (though very talented) teammates. In the middle of a pandemic. There will be bumps in the road early. Arians' priority should be keeping him upright.
Great point, Robert! The difference, to me, is that the Patriots have proven they can tailor their offense to whatever they have.
McDaniels has drawn up spread plans for Brady in 2007, two-tight-end plans in 2011 and two-back plans in 2018. He's had quarterbacks who were drop-back guys but could move a bit in Jimmy Garoppolo, Sam Bradford, Matt Cassel and Kyle Orton. He's had quarterbacks (albeit briefly) who could handle designed runs like Tim Tebow and Jacoby Brissett. His "system" is whatever it needs to be.
Arians' system, meanwhile, is much more well-defined. It's been effective for a long time. But, to me, it's not a perfect match for a short-to-intermediate surgeon like Brady. We'll see.
Solid, Arick. He's a large man. But he's "athletic enough," as Scarnecchia used to say. Onwenu was actually athletic enough that the Patriots tried him out at tackle in camp as a potential depth option. You can hear more about him and his background in the Next Pats Podcast episode we did focusing on him and his unique physical traits.
I thought rookie Justin Herron also had a good camp, and that he made the initial 53-man roster said a lot about just how the team values him. No tape on him (or any rookie) for the rest of the league to evaluate and still they wanted to protect him from waivers.
Give me Julian Edelman, KO. Easy answer? Maybe. But Newton hasn't had a slot receiver like Edelman in his career. So there's some projection involved there.
But I believe he'll be almost as important on third downs as he was for Brady. On first and second down? The Patriots may be able to scheme up openings for others in the passing game. On third? When you can't deceive to achieve, when you just have to win your matchup and get open? Edelman is still his team's best option in those spots.
Give me the players. Coaching still impacts things plenty even when there's no pandemic.
But especially if you're looking at this through a Patriots lens -- losing Dont'a Hightower, Marcus Cannon and Patrick Chung -- I think the answer has to be to take the full roster. The coaching advantage would still exist, as it does every year, to a great extent. Replacing those three names listed above will be a challenge.
That would be Devin Asiasi. You can see my bold prediction for his season here.
This might be a cop-out, but run-pass splits will depend largely on game flow. If DeVante Parker goes off again and the Dolphins get up early on Sunday, for example, your splits will be reversed. And then some, probably.
Last season, when looking at all offensive plays, the NFL had about a 60-40 pass-run split. In 2018, last time Newton was relatively healthy, the Panthers were about 60-40 pass-run. The Patriots may end up closer to 55-45, but they'll still throw more. Even the 2018 Super Bowl run for the Patriots -- which is always considered a great example of a ground-and-pound approach -- skewed pass (52-48).
In terms of the Newton-specific package? I think I'd go with a higher figure. I think based on zone-read plays, designed quarterback runs, wide-zone runs and bootlegs, we could see a fairly high percentage of plays that we wouldn't have seen with Brady. Is 20 percent too high? Could it get higher than that? That's part of the reason why Sunday's game will be so fun to watch. We really don't know.
Yes! I think they'll want to do both, actually. They may want to start early by establishing the fact they can create yards on the ground. Could be a lot of Jakob Johnson and two tight ends in the first quarter. But they'll also want to get Newton into a rhythm.
Matt Cassel was really good getting into this on our latest Patriots Talk pod. He played under Norv Turner in Minnesota. That system prioritized getting the ball out quickly and in rhythm, making things easy on the quarterback. If McDaniels wants to do for Newton what Turner did for him in Carolina, we'll see plenty of screens and quick-hitters that allow for catch-and-run gains.
The issue? If the Dolphins are strong against the run, and if their man-to-man defense is choking out the short passing game . . . then what? At some point, they'll need N'Keal Harry (and possibly Damiere Byrd) to threaten the deep portion of the field just to soften things up underneath.
It depends on how they view the team. Is it contending, as I think it should be? They'll make a move to improve if it's out there. They'll deal away a pick if it needs to be done. If the team is in more of a rebuilding mode than they anticipated, they understand they need to build up their young talent base. In that scenario, they'd likely be less inclined to trade away a draft choice.
Good question, Justin. Interesting to go back through some of those Panthers rosters. The Panthers were pretty loaded early on.
Newton's rookie season? Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Greg Olsen, DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Jeremy Shockey. That might've been his best group from an overall-talent perspective. When Smith was out in 2014, the group was led by Olsen, with Williams, Stewart, Kelvin Benjamin and Jerricho Cotchery. Sneaky good group, with Olsen checking in as a 90-catch guy and Benjamin turning in a 1,000-yard season.
Do the Patriots have two options like that now? The best comp might be the group Newton had in his MVP season of 2015, which oddly enough was one of his worst surrounding casts talent-wise. Olsen carried them that year (93 catches) the same way Edelman may have to this season. After that? Devin Funchess, Ted Ginn and Jerricho Cotchery combined for almost 2,000 yards. Can the Patriots figure out a way to replicate that kind of production?
The Ginn deep element might be the toughest thing for them to replicate. Damiere Byrd will have opportunities, but can he catch 50 passes the way Ginn did that season? In Newton's career, this is probably the fifth or sixth-best group he's had. The Patriots don't have a Steve Smith-level or Christian McCaffrey-level player right now. The ranking, of course, would change if N'Keal Harry and/or Patriots rookie tight ends pop.