Patriots

Will Cam Newton embrace Patriots? And will New England embrace him?

Will Cam Newton embrace Patriots? And will New England embrace him?

Cam Newton posted a photo on Twitter Friday morning.

It’s no artistic masterpiece. A port-a-potty dominates the lower middle of the frame. The rest is parking lot, a temporary trailer, shadows and the bland glass and brick front of a storied, middle-aged Gillette Stadium.

But metaphorically? The image carries some weight.

We see Newton’s profile, in the shadow, a little out-of-focus. He’s wearing shades and an expression that’s … what?

Placid? Stoic? Bored? Nervous? Determined? Excited?

The stadium’s ahead of him. Everything’s ahead of him. But so much is unknown.

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The first overall pick in the 2011 draft, the 2015 MVP, an on-field force of nature when at his best, Newton arrives in Foxboro still feeling the sting of being spurned. First by his former team, then by the league.

He’s here competing for the chance to replace the greatest quarterback in NFL history and he’s doing it for a base salary of $1.05M, the veteran minimum. Same salary as Brian Hoyer. If Newton wanted more than that, the Patriots couldn’t — and wouldn’t — have signed him back in late June.

Newton doesn’t seem like someone who experiences much self-doubt. But the past year was good fertilizer to make doubt take root.

The Panthers went 23-23 with Newton as their starter from 2016-19. Shoulder injuries robbed him of arm strength. A foot issue cost him last year. He turned 32. Few if any quarterbacks have taken the amount of physical punishment Newton has.

Does he arrive in New England trying to recapture or reinvent?

Is Newton prepared to be treated as a cog in the wheel? Ready to be upbraided as loudly as the last guy on the roster? Tom Brady got that treatment for a long time. And then it wore on him.

Is Newton ready for a head coach famous for understatement and stingy with praise? A coach who thinks doing one’s job is not cause for breaking out the sheet cake?

Will Newton embrace everything about New England?

The Ringer’s Tyler R. Tynes spent a year reporting on Newton for his narrative podcast -- “The Cam Chronicles” -- which debuted on July 13. Tynes gathered insights on Newton that will be worth remembering as Newton comes to a far different part of the country to replace a quarterback who did things in a far different way than Newton did with the Panthers.

One of the people Tynes spoke with was Newton’s father, Cecil.

“He is not so hypersensitive about whether you like him or not,” said Cecil Newton. “He’s comfortable in his own skin. I’m glad he’s like that, because if he wasn’t, you know, he probably would have faded long before now.”

Aside from standard press conference obligations, Newton doesn’t speak much with conventional media. But his persona on the field and off practically demands opinions. He wears stuff ‘70s era Elton John would think was over the top. He’s demonstrative and self-congratulatory on the field and he doesn’t love being questioned.

Brady had plenty of unconventional wardrobe choices too at times. And he’s always been plenty demonstrative and a Grade-A crap-talker when the occasion called for it.

But he’s also maintained a certain savvy for knowing how to toggle back and forth between different iterations of himself. Polished. Profane. Ultimate teammate. Singular winner. Super celebrity. Just a guy.

Brady can be anything to anybody. Newton isn’t as much a chameleon. He’s eccentric and self-assured. If there was a time he wanted to be universally embraced, that seems to have passed.

Speaking with Tynes last year, Newton said, “I’m in a position now, man, where I’m comfortable in my skin,” he told me. “I don’t try to be nothing that I’m not. And I’m fine with that. And a lot of times it kind of rubs people the wrong way.

“I always try to push the pendulum no matter what it may be. And the fact that, you know, I’m in this place of influence. I want to make sure that, you know, I project being unique, being yourself and being, you know, true to who you are and where you came from as well.”

The other side of that question, of course, is whether New England will embrace Newton?

Newton is in some ways ideally suited for the job. It’s hard to even compare the way the two men play the position so everyone already knows there’s no stylistic comparison.

Newton’s a megastar so he’s not going to be rattled by the attention — though it will be interesting to see if he can smilingly shrug off criticism as Brady usually did.

But there’s also the issue of race. The perception that Boston and New England can be unwelcoming to people of color in general — athletes included — is well-documented. So too is this region’s defensiveness about that perception. There’s no doubt Newton is aware of all of it.

Into race-conscious New England at a time when the nation is more attuned than ever to racial issues comes a demonstrative Black quarterback who’s faster and stronger but less accurate than his absurdly accomplished predecessor who’s always been credited with having a mind like a super-computer.

How Newton is received, the tone of coverage, word choices made in describing him relative to Brady, judgments made on his clothes, demeanor — all will be subject to scrutiny.

This isn’t just a great player possibly succeeding the best-ever. It’s much more fraught than that.

Will Blackmon, a Providence native who played for six NFL teams, was on Tom Curran’s Patriots Talk Podcast last week.

Blackmon, who went to Boston College and was a fourth-round pick of the Packers in 2006, said this when I asked if he thought Newton would be embraced.

“We were fine with Kevin Garnett,” Blackmon said.

I asked Blackmon, who is Black, if New England is misunderstood nationally on matters of race.

“I wouldn’t say it’s misunderstood,” he answered. “People like Big Papi dealt with some stuff. Carl Crawford dealt with some stuff.

“I think for the fact that Bill Belichick is the one taking the chance on Cam means that … people will respect his decision on that,” Blackmon added. “(People will say), ‘We’re gonna trust him on this one. We’re still gonna watch (Newton) closely. Still.’ Even though they trust him, they’re still gonna watch him closely.”

New England has alternately embraced and rebuffed innumerable talented but divisive players Belichick’s brought in over the years. Chad Ochocinco. Corey Dillon. Randy Moss.

Without fail, the approval or disapproval of each guy was linked to how they were playing.    

Blackmon summed up the New England sports fan’s mindset this way: “Sometimes people feel a certain way when someone is really sure of themselves. That is that area. They want you to be conservative. Just relax. Play football. We don’t need all these antics.”

Patriots Talk Podcast: Is New England ready to embrace Cam Newton? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

In his conversation with Tynes, Newton sounded like a man who believes he’s always evolving.

“I make mistakes,” he told Tynes. “I have made mistakes. I’m going to continue to make mistakes. But at the same time, I don’t want those mistakes to be something that’s been constant. You know, I want to live and I’ve got children. I want to be able to teach them right from wrong and know what to expect. And, you know, I don’t proclaim to be something that I’m not. And I know who I am and I know what I’m trying to be.”

How Newton adapts and performs in Josh McDaniels' offense and on Belichick’s football team is easily one of the most interesting questions leading into this season.

How malleable will Newton be? How much will McDaniels commit to letting Cam be Cam?

“I’m not going to say he’s going to ‘conform’ because he doesn’t need to conform,” said Blackmon. “But he’s going to listen to coach Belichick. He has to. You’re in a situation where no one believes in you and the greatest coach in football history is bringing you on to give you a chance. Cam Newton is going to listen.”

The last thing Newton said to Tynes in their interview last year is a great quote to close on as Newton, the Patriots and New England head into the great unknown of the 2020 NFL season.

“I’m true to who I am, man,” Newton told Tynes. “And I don’t bite my tongue for nobody. Everybody know how I rock and roll. And I’m just more comfortable that way.”

Five bold predictions for Patriots' 2020 training camp: Breakout at TE?

Five bold predictions for Patriots' 2020 training camp: Breakout at TE?

With the New England Patriots finally hitting the practice field this week, Phil Perry shares his bold predictions for Pats training camp as well as the top storylines that will be monitored over the next few weeks.

The upcoming season may be the most challenging in NFL history for rookies to contribute. And yet here we are, predicting that a rookie tight end will end up as the star of Patriots training camp. That's gnawing-on-coffee-grinds bold, no?

OK. Maybe not. Depends on just how off-the-wall you like your predictions, I guess. But bold is what we're going for here as we try to foresee what we'll witness on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium over the next month. Hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times, please. Let's go.

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1. DEVIN ASIASI WILL BE THE STAR OF CAMP

I know what you're thinking. "The star? Like, as in the best of the bunch?" Well, no. Probably not. But he will be among the top performers, in my opinion. And because it's training camp -- because we're itching for a look at the new names -- that'll make Asiasi "the star."

Part of the reason I can envision him having success is that he'll have opportunity. There's no veteran ahead of him demanding every rep with Cam Newton.

He's also in possession of a tremendous physical skill set. He has excellent body control for someone weighing 260 pounds. He's capable of sudden cuts in and out of breaks. He'll be working against a young linebacking corps in coverage at times and with a quarterback who has loved throwing to tight ends over the years.

Put it all together, and I think he'll be a legitimate standout among other big names whose success this time of year will be a little more expected. 

2. SUDFELD MEMORIAL HYPE-TRAIN-LEAVING-THE-STATION AWARD: J.J. TAYLOR

Every August our collective conscience as football followers in this region wanders back to a tall, long-haired tight end making play after play in training camp.

Zach Sudfeld was hope personified, the premier example of a player who emerged from nowhere, seemingly, to look like a game-changer in the summertime.

This year? That player will be J.J. Taylor.

An undersized human joystick type, he was undrafted out of the University of Arizona. He'll work in as a punt and kick returner, I believe, and has the ability to both run between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield.

Will he be more Dion Lewis or Jeff Demps? Hard to know before laying eyes on him in a Patriots uniform, but I'm leaning toward the former right now. And tales of his ankle-breaking ability relayed from reporters to fans will have folks clamoring to see him on the 53-man roster Week 1.

3. TWO ROOKIE DEFENDERS NOT NAMED KYLE DUGGER WILL START

Part of this will be by necessity, of course. There's no way around it: Lose four veteran linebackers in one offseason, and odds are you're going to be relying on a few young fill-ins.

Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche feel like the most likely candidates to help make up for the departures of Kyle Van Noy, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts. There is no one-for-one replacement for Hightower, but it looks like Ja'Whaun Bentley will be the closest thing the Patriots defense has for that role.

For Collins? I like Uche as a reasonable facsimile. He was a prolific second-level blitzer at Michigan. He's a twitchy athlete who can cover. He's not as long as Collins, but he's a dynamic athlete.

Jennings may have the toughest gig of the bunch if he's the first- and second-down replacement for Van Noy. Chase Winovich (listed at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds) excelled in a third-down sub-rusher role for the Patriots as a rookie, and he'll challenge for a more regular spot. But Jennings looks like he has the frame to set the edge (6-foot-3, 259 pounds) on early downs.

Kyle Dugger is a next-level athlete who could end up as Belichick's punt-returner in Year 1. But with Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips looking like the top two options at safety at the moment, he may have to wait to start.

Here's how Belichick assessed his rookie class on Friday: "I think they’re just trying to keep their head above water and try to swim or paddle in the right direction knowing that they’re not really able to keep up, but they’re doing the best they can and they’re way, way ahead of where they were a week ago, two weeks ago, a month ago, two months ago. So, a lot of progress there, but a long, long way to go."

4. DAMIERE BYRD WILL WIN THE NO. 3 RECEIVER JOB

Here's what we think we know about the Patriots receiver group when healthy: Julian Edelman and N'Keal Harry will be out there regularly. Other than that? Eh...

Mohamed Sanu clearly has an advantage over other younger receivers in this shortened offseason. He has an advantage over veteran newcomer Damiere Byrd in that he's been in the system since the middle of last season.

But I could envision a scenario in which Byrd -- whose top-off-the-defense speed makes him a different type of player than Sanu or Jakobi Meyers -- is the No. 3 wideout in 11 personnel packages for Josh McDaniels.

Patriots Talk Podcast - Training Camp Preview: Burning Questions and Bold Predictions | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Particularly if the team wants to work in more Shanahan-style concepts -- with a flat option, an intermediate option and a deep-threat option all on the field simultaneously -- Byrd could end up playing starter snaps.

Where does that leave Sanu? He'll provide valuable depth as someone who can play in the slot and on the outside, but I'd anticipate the Patriots wanting to give Harry every opportunity to be a legitimate starting "X" receiver, and we know Edelman is still their most dependable option on key downs.

Value in roster-building then comes into play. If Sanu isn't a top-three wideout, and if he's not a big-time special-teams contributor, and if he's making $6.5 million, is he long for the roster? 

5. COACH WE'LL BE DISCUSSING THE MOST: JEDD FISCH

Fisch was named quarterbacks coach this offseason, a title that McDaniels typically holds in addition to his offensive coordinator role.

Having bounced around the country working high-profile jobs both in the NFL (Vikings and Jaguars offensive coordinator) and in college (Miami and UCLA offensive coordinator), Fisch has worked alongside a number of brilliant offensive coaches.

Early in his career, though, he took a position coaching Mike Shanahan's receivers in Denver and appears to have been significantly impacted by a Shanahan system that features heavier personnel packages, wide-zone runs and play-action passes.

In Jacksonville, he emphasized some of the same concepts. Working in Los Angeles under Sean McVay (another Shanahan acolyte) Fisch was swimming in another system heavily influenced by Shanahan.

The reason we'll be discussing Fisch and his early impact on the offense, I think, is because we'll see some of those Shanahan elements in the Patriots offense as it redefines itself following Tom Brady's departure: Fullbacks leading the way for wide-zone runs, two tight end packages and play-action bootleg roll-outs.

That last element -- helped by quarterbacks who have no issue with a "moving pocket" -- wasn't something that was featured prominently with Brady behind center. But with Newton and Jarrett Stidham, McDaniels will have no problem calling for those kinds of looks in 2020. And Fisch will be instrumental in helping them master that portion of the Patriots playbook.

Next Pats Podcast: BC coach Jeff Hafley on how Eagles are preparing for season amid COVID-19 | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Why Jason, Devin McCourty decided not to opt out of Patriots' 2020 season

Why Jason, Devin McCourty decided not to opt out of Patriots' 2020 season

The New England Patriots have a league-high eight players opting out of the 2020 NFL season due to concerns about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Pats defense was impacted most with safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Dont'a Hightower deciding the risk of playing this year outweighed the reward. There was some speculation Devin and/or Jason McCourty could follow suit after Devin criticized the NFL for moving up the opt-out deadline, but both are set to play this season.

On Friday, Jason McCourty explained why he and his twin brother never seriously considered opting out.

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“Me and Dev have both spoken a lot about our stance on everything that goes on — I don’t think either one of us ever thought about actually opting out," McCourty said on a video call with reporters. "The opt-out itself just wasn’t worth it. I think for us, the love of the game and the ability to go out there — we didn’t really have a lot of issues that other people have, whether it was newborn kids, whether it was things that put them in high risk or close family members that put them in high risk.

“So for us, it was strictly from a family standpoint, we felt like it was worth it to give it a try and see what we were up against. And being able come into the building, seeing the things that would be done (to protect players), I think we thought it was necessary to go through that process.

"And I think us, like anybody in our society right now, if it was something that was at an extremely high risk to you or your family, of course you wouldn’t continue to do it if you could stop it. But I think for all of us right now playing that are in our building — I can’t speak for everybody, but I think we’re comfortable with the protocols and the measures that have been taken. I think all of us are in this thing together."

While they're a bit shorthanded for 2020, the Patriots defense still is positioned to be one of the best in the NFL. That especially applies to the secondary, where the McCourty twins will aim to help maintain the unit's reputation as one of the best positional groups in the league.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Benedict explains the process behind upcoming book, "The Dynasty" | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube