Will Cam Newton conquer Patriots offense in time to start by Week 1?

Will Cam Newton conquer Patriots offense in time to start by Week 1?

All things being equal, there’d be no reason Cam Newton couldn’t make his case to be opening day starter for the Patriots in 2020.

But all things really aren’t equal between Newton, Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer.

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First, Newton has to show he’s recovered from foot and shoulder problems that marred his last two seasons. From all indications, that’s a formality. The Patriots expect Newton to have no physical limitations.

Second, Newton has to make up the system stagger that Stidham and Hoyer have on him. There are a lot of plug-and-play positions on a football team. Quarterback isn’t one of them. The position demands its owner know his job cold AND the responsibilities of 10 other guys.

That’s less of a sure thing.

Stidham’s been with the team through two offseasons, got specific tutelage throughout 2019 from offensive assistants like Mick Lombardi and has had 15 months to eat, drink and sleep the Patriots' way of doing things.

Hoyer’s been around it even longer.

Newton’s been with the team a little more than a week. Sources say he’s already into the playbook, learning the language and there’s no concern he won’t master it. But demonstrating that mastery on the practice field and in preseason games? Newton may not have that chance.

Two weeks of preseason have been lopped. Right now, the league and players are wrangling over how to ramp-up the early stages of camp. The union, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, wants 80 players on rosters as opposed to 90, just 20 players at a time at the facility during the first 21 days of camp and 40 during the next 10-day phase of non-contact practices. So that’s 31 days of players in shifts from the time camp theoretically opens on July 28. There are then 10 practices (eight padded) and the two preseason games.

It’s inevitable that a full-go Newton will be the Patriots' starter at some point in 2020. And over that proposed 41-day period, there will be plenty of time for Newton to show the arm strength, mobility, poise and leadership the team presumes he’ll bring.

But will it be enough time for Newton to show he can run the Patriots offense as smoothly as Stidham and Hoyer? Who gets the first-team reps in camp? Who starts the preseason games? Is weight placed on the crispness of the whole operation when they do hit the field or — if it doesn’t look just right — is that chalked up to the acclimation period?

“I think Jarrett Stidham is going to make this closer than most people realize,” said Chris Simms, an analyst for NBC Sports and Pro Football Talk. “(When the Newton signing happened) I thought, ‘Ooohh, this far into the offseason …?’ I just thought the Patriots would stand pat with Stidham. I know they really like him. This is going to be hard to overcome.”

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On further review, Simms realized the equation will ultimately boil down to who’s the better player: Newton or Stidham?

“The more they play around with Cam Newton, the more they’re going to realize, ‘Whoa, there’s just a whole other facet of our playbook here that we can dive into and be very effective with Cam Newton over Stidham too,’ ” Simms said. “I would imagine Cam Newton is going to be the starter and Jarrett Stidham will be his very willing backup.”

From indications I’ve gotten, this will be an open competition. The starter’s job isn’t promised Newton. Importantly, the sense is that Newton understands that. And the belief is that if he’s not the starter coming out of camp, he wouldn’t pull the ripcord and demand his release so he could latch on elsewhere. Both sides want this to work. Both sides know that work is what it will require.

When you sit back and think about it, trepidation and presumptions about what Newton would expect his situation to be is what led him to the Patriots.

“He got screwed over by his own team, then Covid-19 hurt him with being able to get the medical checks,” said Simms. “So all the seats were filled for starting quarterbacks. I’ve been saying that nobody would sign Cam Newton except for a few teams because he would disrupt or divide a locker room (if he’s not the starter).

“If he’s your backup, everybody’s going to go, ‘Man, did you see our backup today? Did you see that throw he made? Did you see that run he had? Did you see that throw he made on the run?’ And everyone’s going to say, ‘Why aren’t we starting him?’ That will ruin a football team,” said Simms. “That’s why he was on the street. But this is a situation that certainly makes sense.”

It does because Newton isn’t trying to beat out a quarterback the team drafted high and planned to hand the reins to. Stidham’s a promising player they took a shot at. His flag isn’t planted anywhere on the depth chart.

The question isn’t whether Newton is good enough to start over Stidham. The question is how quickly a Patriots offense that’s been built around a pocket assassin morphs to meet Newton halfway.

Simms says that shouldn’t be an issue.

“It’s the most versatile playbook in the NFL,” he said. “There’s no team in the NFL that can reinvent their offense, or their team or the mantra of their team on a regular basis. I don’t think this is going to be a huge adjustment for them where they say, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to invent this whole new playbook.’ A lot of these plays are in their playbook. Now, instead of putting them on page 185, now we move them up to the first 40 pages of the playbook because they’ll be more of a staple that way.”

Bottom line? Pandemic or not, teams don’t generally wait until June 28 to acquire their starting quarterback for an upcoming season. The Patriots have.

We’ll find out if that means, “Ready or not, here comes Cam!” in Week One.

For Patriots, the dilemma of Stephon Gilmore's contract is looming

For Patriots, the dilemma of Stephon Gilmore's contract is looming

The AP Defensive Player of the Year has been handed out for 49 years. Know how many cornerbacks have won it?

Six.

Know who the first five were? Mel Blount (1975), Lester Hayes (1980), Rod Woodson (1993), Deion Sanders (1994) and Charles Woodson (2010).

Know where they all ended up? The Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Know who the sixth cornerback to win it was? Yes you do. Stephon Gilmore. There’s no guarantee he’s headed for Canton, Ohio like the rest of them. But if the Patriots want to keep Gilmore in shouting distance of Canton, Massachusetts, through the middle part of this decade, it’s gonna cost ‘em.

But Covid-19 will complicate that. The salary cap is expected to drop significantly from its 2020 level of $198M because of lost revenues this year. The NFL could allow all the hypothetically lost revenue to whack the cap in 2021 (doubtful) or they could spread the losses out over a longer period of, say, three years (more likely).

Either way, the freight for Gilmore is real steep this year ($18.67M cap hit) and goes up even more next year ($19.67M). But that’s it for Gilmore under the five-year, $65M contract he signed in March of 2017.

As it stands now, Gilmore is alongside Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison as being the best free agent signing of Bill Belichick’s tenure.

But a lot of factors are going to intervene between now and the end of his deal to determine whether he stays. How well he plays the next two years, where the cap is headed, the 2022 market for corners, even the performance of Cam Newton — all of them are going to hold some sway over the Patriots’ decision-making.

Hell, if the cap is going down and Gilmore’s 2020 play begins to decline, the reckoning about his future here could come even earlier. Because, if you haven’t noticed, teams are already wary of the future.

Earlier this week, Albert Breer of the MMQB pointed out that there have only been three extensions handed out since March 23 — Christian McCaffrey, Laremy Tunsil and Patrick Chung. Rookie signings around the league, meanwhile, have trickled in with the scheduled opening of camp less than a month away.

Next year, the Patriots have about $90M of cap space available based on an estimated cap of $215M. They have a number of key free agents but no huge-ticket players to re-sign. Unless … UNLESS … Cam Newton plays out of his mind and into the heart of Bill Belichick on his one-year deal and comes to the table at 32 saying he’d like to stay. The starting point would be no less than $25M per season for Newton.

Why would the Patriots entertain that for Newton next spring when they wouldn’t think of going long for the greatest quarterback in NFL history? Cam will be a decade younger than Brady was this spring.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves with hypotheticals.

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Let’s just keep it to Gilmore. If he plays as he has the past two seasons, he’ll be 32 and still presumably have two or three more years of high-level play in him. The Patriots won’t be paying him for being DPOY — they already did that. Instead, they’ll be looking at a shorter-term deal.

The top paid corner by annual salary is currently Eagles corner Darius Slay. He signed a three-year, $50M deal with the Eagles after being traded by the Lions. He’s 29.  

Jason Fitzgerald of OverTheCap.com theorized that, if Gilmore were up this year, the Patriots would probably have to jump Slay’s pay by $500,000 per year.

“I would imagine that if they offer him that he’d be very happy and would sign on the dotted line,” said Fitzgerald. "You look at the top market guy and, in the case of that player it’s a third-contract cornerback, he’s already had the one big extension. There are some similarities and that’s probably the number they’re looking at. (Gilmore’s) résumé is better than Slay’s but that’s the way they seemingly work out is incremental jumps. There’s not that many players that get a couple million dollars over the top contract.”

One precedent to watch for with Gilmore will be Patrick Peterson. He signed a five-year, $70M extension in 2014 that takes him through the 2020 season. What Peterson gets after this year could be a framework for Gilmore in 2021.

What about franchising Gilmore after the 2021 season? Again, Covid-19 could affect that. But the tag this year is about $16.5M. In two years, it would jump to 120 percent of his 2021 cap number ($23.605M).

Would Gilmore balk at that? Well, no player likes to go year-to-year with the risk of being injured or having his play slip. They’d all like the long-term deal with guaranteed money up front in the form of a signing bonus so they have some longer-term security.

And the Patriots would probably like to get to Gilmore before his final season to see if he’d extend so they can drop the 2021 cap number a bit. But teams don’t seem comfortable right now cutting long-term deals and writing big checks with so much uncertainty. And that may not change between now and next March when the final year of Gilmore’s deal begins.

So there’s a lot for the Patriots to ponder when it comes to deciding whether they want Gilmore here for the very long haul.

H/T to Miguel Benzan (@patscap) for correcting information in an earlier version of this story.

Cam Newton’s presence could put Jarrett Stidham on a Jimmy Garoppolo timetable

Cam Newton’s presence could put Jarrett Stidham on a Jimmy Garoppolo timetable

Jimmy Garoppolo was a second-round pick in 2014. He waited two full seasons before getting a chance to start for the Patriots in the 2016 opener.

He won that game on the road in Arizona and was playing lights out in the first 20 minutes of the next game against Miami before getting broken like a toy by Kiko Alonso.

The rest of the story is long, circuitous and ends with him being very rich and starting in a Super Bowl last February for another team entirely. Let’s not get into that here.

But let’s get into the arc of Garoppolo’s time with the Patriots because Jarrett Stidham – a fourth-round pick last year – suddenly finds himself in a spot similar to Garoppolo’s: competing with a former MVP and staring at the possibility of another year waiting his turn.

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Because we’ve spent the past two months since the draft believing the Patriots were riding with the Stidham-Brian Hoyer combo, the signing of Newton has been viewed by some as a vote of no-confidence in Stidham. In reality, this move has less to do with the Pats being cool on Stidham and more to do with putting a few chips on the very significant upside of Newton.

And that’s really not a bad thing. Not for Newton. Not for the Patriots. And not for Stidham.

If Cam Newton comes in and performs like he did when he was last healthy at the start of the 2018 season, there’s no shame for Stidham in getting beaten out by a bigger, stronger, faster, more experienced player.

Losing out to a former No. 1 overall pick who, in 2015, had one of the most dominant seasons a quarterback’s ever had? It’s not really a fair fight.  

And where does that leave Stidham? Same place Garoppolo was in his second season – watching a better and more seasoned player play.

Play it out a little more. If Newton comes in and performs as one of the top-10 quarterbacks in the league this season on his one-year deal, he’ll be back at the table as a free agent in 2021 expecting a deal that pays him at least the going rate. That would start at $25M per.

If the Patriots are committed to staying out of the high-priced quarterback business, they can push away from the table and then Stidham – with another year of learning – can be in the same spot Garoppolo was in 2016. Entering his third season and more than ready for his turn. He will then have two years left on his rookie deal to make his case.

Garoppolo, of course, was just temping for Brady in 2016. And Brady went on to win a Super Bowl in 2016 and have an MVP season in 2017, so there was no way for Garoppolo to dislodge him.  

Stidham will be in an actual competition this summer (theoretically) and – unless Newton stuns everyone, stays healthy and plays like Brady in 2016 and 2017 – Stidham will have a chance to win the job.

Signing Newton buys the Patriots time with Stidham. And because there’s been no offseason for Stidham to truly make the second-year leap that most players do, the time is probably going to benefit him the same way it benefited Garoppolo.

What if Stidham beats out Newton for the job? Or Newton gets hurt? Or asks for his release which, if he’s playing for short money and feels he’s going to wind up backing up Stidham, he may well do.

Then the Patriots are back where they were before Sunday night – with a young quarterback who’s going to be learning on the job and a veteran quarterback ready as the safety net.

As much as we all got our brains around the idea of Stidham as the starter if and when this season begins, if he’s watching when the opener comes around, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It wasn’t for Jimmy G.