Patriots

Patriots Roster Reset: Odds J'Mar Smith, Brian Lewerke make it in Patriots quarterback room?

Patriots Roster Reset: Odds J'Mar Smith, Brian Lewerke make it in Patriots quarterback room?

The Patriots are embarking on the Great Unknown in 2020. Kinda. 

They’ve had to roll without Tom Brady before, of course. There was 2008. But no one knew ahead of time Brady’s knee would be wrecked before Week 2.

There was 2016. But everyone knew Brady would be back after four weeks.

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

This time around, Brady will not be suddenly ripped from Bill Belichick’s plans. This time around, Brady won’t be swooping in to save the day after a month away. This time around will be different.

Maybe it’ll be Jarrett Stidham’s show from start to finish. Maybe Brian Hoyer will see some early work.

However it plays out, the people occupying the Patriots quarterback room will have a gargantuan task at hand: make it their own. 

LOCK ‘EM IN

Here’s what we know about Stidham: His head coach was encouraged by his development throughout his rookie season; his head coach opted not to draft a quarterback or sign one (other than Hoyer) in free agency; Stidham’s teammates respect his approach, his demeanor, and the physical talent he showed last season; he had the best rookie preseason of any Patriots quarterback in the Bill Belichick era.

We also know he’ll be on the roster. How he’ll perform if and when he’s asked to be the player to replace Brady? That’s less certain.

ON THE BUBBLE

Brian Hoyer looks like a lock. He probably should be a lock. Is he a lock?

I believe he will be on the Patriots roster in 2020. I believe his value as a veteran to help shepherd Stidham along will be significant. I believe New England’s lack of investment at the position on draft weekend all but assured Hoyer of a roster spot. But we know he’s on a low-money deal that includes no guarantees. We know his upside is what it is. We know Cam Newton remains a free agent. And we know the Patriots have long kept just two quarterbacks on the active roster in order to max out their depth at other spots.

If we had to put someone on the bubble — and we’re identifying bubble players at each position group in this series — Hoyer is basically the only choice...

Listen and subscribe to the Next Pats Podcast — or watch it on YouTube:

LONG SHOTS

...Because as talented as J’Mar Smith appears to be, the undrafted rookie still has to land here. Smith, out of Louisiana Tech, is a fascinating study.

Drafted by the Padres as a catcher in 2015, with a quick release and a strong arm, Smith is built more like a catcher than a prototypical NFL passer. He’s 6-foot-1, 218 pounds and has a knack for extending plays. Not necessarily a scrambler or a designed-run quarterback, he’s someone who has plenty of experience throwing off-platform.

The results weren’t always great — those inconsistent results along with a two-game suspension last season likely led to him going undrafted — but his skill set might make him a good option to function as a scout team quarterback for the Patriots.

The Patriots took a second undrafted rookie quarterback in Michigan State’s Brian Lewkerke. He’s a better runner than Smith, but his arm isn’t as live when asked to go off script. These two will likely be competing for one practice-squad spot by the end of the summer, unless one or both shows out in preseason games. If they do, perhaps they push for a roster spot. Whether that’s in New England or elsewhere is to be determined. 

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

The newcomer to watch here is Smith. The reason? Same reason he looks like a good scout-team quarterback option for the Patriots this year: his off-platform work. In 2020, Belichick will have to come up with plans for creative, off-platform throwers including Sam Darnold, Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, possibly Tyrod Taylor and possibly Tua Tagovailoa.

Last season it was Stidham who took on that scout-team role, at times wowing his teammates with his arm talent. But if Stidham is getting starter snaps in practice, the Patriots might want someone with a little electricity in his arm to run the scout team when prepping for teams like Kansas City or Seattle. Hoyer could do it. Smith might be better.

X-FACTOR

New Patriots offensive assistant Jedd Fisch has not had his job title officially announced. But he’s a member of the Mike Shanahan tree, having coached in Denver as Shanahan’s receivers coach in the late 1990s. In 2013, he was named Jaguars offensive coordinator and used some distinctly Shanahanian concepts: two-back sets, wide zone runs, boot-action passes. Since then Fisch has worked under Jim Harbaugh at Michigan and Chip Kelly at UCLA.

For the last two seasons, he worked with the Rams under Sean McVay (another member of the Shanahan tree). All that is to say, Fisch has enough experience to be a real find for the Patriots. And if they lean on his background as a Shanahan guy, it could make a sizable impact on theIr quarterback room.

That style of offense is considered very quarterback friendly and has helped turn good passers (Jimmy Garoppolo under Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, Matt Ryan under Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta, Kirk Cousins under Mike and Kyle Shanahan in Washington and Gary Kubiak in Minnesota, Jared Goff under McVay in Los Angeles) into prolific ones for stretches.

How Cam Newton's 'up to' $7.5 million contract fits under Patriots salary cap

How Cam Newton's 'up to' $7.5 million contract fits under Patriots salary cap

How did the Patriots pull this off? How did a team that had no financial breathing room, no salary-cap space, go ahead and sign Cam Newton to a contract that's worth up to $7.5 million?

The key words there are "up to."

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio drew up a deal that would pay Newton the way other quarterback reclamation projects have been paid, if he performs. In the meantime, his salary-cap figure for 2020 comes in at just a smidgen higher than that of long-snapper Joe Cardona.

Let that sink in.

ALPHABET SOUP

Understanding how the Patriots were able to pull that off — pay Newton the going rate for a quarterback looking to revive his career, while simultaneously getting his salary on their books when they had next to no cap space — requires an understanding of the letters "NLTBE."

That acronym stands for "not likely to be earned," and it describes the majority of the incentives Newton received in his new deal with the Patriots. By NFL rule, NLTBE incentives do not count against the salary cap immediately. NLTBE incentive markers are markers that a player didn't achieve the season prior. If those markers are reached, then that incentive payment hits the following season's salary cap.

(As you might guess, LTBE incentive markers are markers a player did hit the season prior. LTBE incentives are counted against the cap upon the player's deal being signed.)

For example, if a player did not throw for 3,000 yards in 2019 but would be paid a $1 million bonus for reaching the 3,000-yard passing mark in 2020, that would be considered an incentive that is NLTBE. It would not count against the 2020 cap. If that 3,000-yard mark is reached in 2020, it would count toward the 2021 cap.

We can deduce then that the $5.75 million in available incentives included in Newton's deal did not count against the Patriots cap for 2020. They couldn't. The team didn't have enough cap space on hand to give him that kind of money in LTBE incentives. The Patriots had less than $1 million in space prior to agreeing to terms with Newton, per Patriots cap expert Miguel Benzan.

We don't yet know the specific markers Newton has to hit to earn his 2020 incentives, but because he played in only two games last season, the Patriots could have given him very reasonable numbers to reach and they still wouldn't count against the cap immediately because they'd be NLTBE. 

For instance, New England could've given Newton bonuses for playing in three games, passing for 600 yards and throwing one touchdown. Because he didn't hit any of those numbers in 2019 — he played in just two games and threw for 572 yards without any touchdowns — they'd all be considered NLTBE and not counted against the 2020 cap. In all likelihood, though, it's going to be a little more difficult than that for Newton to reach the incentives laid out for him.

Listen and subscribe to Tom E. Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast:

WARNING: MATH AHEAD

So if $5.75 million of Newton's "up to" $7.5 million contract with the Patriots won't count against the cap, what will?

Newton's veteran-minimum $1.05 million contract, for one, will count. That's the minimum under the new collective bargaining agreement for players with at least seven years of NFL service.

Additionally, two games of Newton's $700,000 in per-game roster bonuses will count against the cap. If he's provided $700,000 total in per-game roster bonuses, that means he'll be owed $43,750 for each of the 16 regular-season games he's on the Patriots roster. Two games of per-game roster bonus — $87,500 — counts against the 2020 cap because it's LTBE; he played in two games in 2019. The rest of those per-game roster bonuses are considered NLTBE but will count against the cap with each game he plays. So if he plays in all 16 games, by the end of the 2020 season, his cap number will be $1.75 million. Active roster bonuses are the only earned NLTBE incentives that hit a current year's cap, Benzan relayed. 

Therefore, Newton's cap number for New England in 2020 — his base salary plus two games of roster bonuses — comes to $1,137,500. That's slightly more than the $1.08 million cap number assigned to Cardona and the $1.05 million number assigned to fellow quarterback Brian Hoyer for this coming season. It's slightly less than fullback Dan Vitale's 2020 cap hit of $1,287,500. 

Now the question is, how did the Patriots fit Newton under their cap if they had less than $1 million in cap space left prior to landing him? His cap number is over $1 million, isn't it?

It is. But there's an accounting rule the NFL uses to include only the contracts of the players with the top-51 base salaries against a team's cap until active rosters are finalized.

Newton's cap number replaces what was the No. 51 salary on the 90-man roster prior to Newton's signing. According to Benzan, that No. 51 slot was assigned to outside linebacker Tashawn Bower. Because the difference in cap numbers between Newton and Bower is only a few hundred thousand dollars, the Patriots had enough space to add Newton once Bower fell below the No. 51 spot.

If the Patriots were snug up against the cap before, they're even more so now. By Benzan's estimates, they have $263,489 left in cap room. To handle regular in-season spending, they'll need to clear out more space eventually. Re-working Joe Thuney's contract to reduce his nearly $15 million cap hit, for instance, could free up some significant cap room quickly. 

MAXING OUT

If Newton makes the team, plays, and plays well, he may have a chance to reach the full $7.5 million value of the deal. But why $7.5 million? Why settle there?

Marcus Mariota is getting a $7.5 million base salary to be the No. 2 for the Raiders in 2020. Teddy Bridgewater made about that much in 2019 from the Saints. Both were passers in need of a fresh start. Both carried a certain level of uncertainty.

The same is true for Newton in New England, though his résumé is vastly more impressive than that of either of those other quarterbacks when they signed their contracts.

It's the definition of a low-risk, high-reward deal. It just required a little bit of creativity to get it in under the minimal amount of cap space the Patriots had available for 2020.

Cam Newton's private QB coach dispels 'lazy narrative' about Patriots star

Cam Newton's private QB coach dispels 'lazy narrative' about Patriots star

Cam Newton's reported agreement to sign with the New England Patriots has mostly been met with positive reviews.

A bunch of former and current players, including ex-Patriots Randy Moss and Deion Branch, as well as Newton's former teammates including Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson, applauded the move. Many media members, from people who cover pro football daily to talk/debate show hosts, also have had plenty of good things to say about the signing.

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

One of the few concerns being debated is Newton's ability to succeed for a head coach like Bill Belichick.

Everyone knows the Patriots coach runs a tight ship in Foxboro, where players rarely give the other team bulletin board material and often provide boring answers in press conferences. It's the classic team-above-all approach, typically called "The Patriot Way', and it's hard to argue with the results -- six Super Bowl titles in 20 years.

George Whitfield, a private quarterbacks coach who's worked a lot with Newton, did his best to dispel what he calls a "lazy narrative" about the veteran QB and Belichick.

"Suggesting that Cam can't adapt to Belichick is a lazy narrative," Whitfield told ESPN's Tim Keown. "Cam recognizes this as a singular opportunity. I can imagine Belichick telling him, 'You have goals, and you have a chip on your shoulder. We have goals, and our shoulders look the same as yours -- just not as big.'"

Listen and subscribe to Tom E. Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast:

Another common criticism of Newton is when forced to stand in the pocket and pass, he's far less effective. Whitfield shot down this narrative as well.

"I cringe every time I hear people ask, 'Can he do it from the pocket?'" Whitfield said, per Keown. "Cam's extremely bright. He's nuanced. There aren't going to be any coverages where he looks up and says, 'I've never seen this before.'

He can play in the pocket -- it's what he's been doing -- but he also has the world's biggest and baddest parachute on his back, and when he's in trouble, he can just reach out and pull it.

Newton's ability to escape the pocket and run for huge chunks of yards and touchdowns is a skill we have rarely seen in the Patriots offense over the last two decades. Brady did a great job moving around in the pocket and sliding to avoid pass rushers, but he was never a threat to take off and make huge plays with his legs. 

It remains to be seen how well Newton will fit in the Patriots offense. We also don't know if he'll even win the starting quarterback job. He should receive strong competition for the role from 2019 fourth-round draft pick Jarrett Stidham.

Bet against Newton at your own peril, though.

There's no doubt he's super motivated to prove the naysayers wrong, and if healthy, he's still talented enough to help the Patriots be an AFC contender in 2020.