Cam Newton
(Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Cam Newton was never the problem with the 2020 New England Patriots offense. While his game is still plagued by many of the same inconsistencies that have been there for years, Newton is among the league’s best when it comes to pocket presence, out-of-structure playmaking and dual-threat upside.

To me, it makes a lot of sense why New England would want to run it back with Newton under center. That’s far from a universal opinion, however. 

After the Patriots kicked off their 2021 offseason by throwing money around like they’re trying to win an election in Louisiana, it’s clear that Bill Belichek has New England in full-on win-now mode. Let’s take a look at how Newton’s skills and limitations factor into the Patriots’ Super Bowl aspirations.

Games watched: Jets (Game 1), Dolphins (Game 2), Denver, Baltimore, San Francisco, Houston.

Where Cam Newton Shines

Why don’t we give Cam Newton credit for being one of the best pocket managers we’ve ever seen? Do we only pretend to care about pocket management during NFL Draft cycles and we just stop paying attention when the actual games begin?

At any rate, Newton is a pocket movement guru. The Patriots suffered from truly awful tackle play last season, but Newton routinely bailed them out.

On this third and long play against the Dolphins, Newton does a beautiful job of stepping up in the pocket to avoid pressure. He looks to his check-down as he feels the pressure but gets his eyes back up to the post-cross concept while he’s stepping up and he delivers a strike. 

Newton does something similar here but this time he’s dealing with pressure from both the defensive end to his left and the two-technique defensive tackle to his right. He steps up and a little to his right and makes one of the best throws I saw anywhere on his film. This is as good as it gets from the pocket in the NFL. 

Here against the 49ers, Newton’s footwork is just really good. First, he gets his feet lined up to throw to his left by using a technique called dovetailing. When he gets in the path of the edge rusher working back outside he’s able to dodge him before getting his feet lined back up to find the open receiver.

Despite recent injuries, Newton is still a high-end threat in the run game. In addition to being a freak athlete Newton is an exceptionally nuanced runner and he sets up defenders for jukes and cutbacks as well as any quarterback we’ve ever seen.   

After Denver’s blitzing linebacker gets around his running backs’ cut block and he sees that Julian Edleman is double covered, Newton takes the grass in front of him. He starts the run by angling towards the linebacker and he gets about five yards downfield before cutting back to his right. Newton uses his speed to hit the seam hard and finishes the play being violent on the boundary.

If Newton would’ve ran straight towards his right then the linebacker could have taken a good angle and cut him off. If Newton would have done that the run would still have been a first down but by manipulating the linebacker in the open field he’s able to create a much more explosive play. 

This play against Miami is another example of the impact of Newton’s instinctual running. The Patriots look like they’re running a run-screen-option with Newton and the running back but Miami’s three-technique Christian Wilkins gets a great take-off and blows by Mike Onwenu’s down block. Newton reacts quickly enough to plant his right foot, juke Wilkins and get upfield to pick up the first down. There are very few players, let alone quarterbacks, that can make this play.

But nobody really needs me to tell them that Cam Newton is pretty good at this whole running with the football thing. 

Issac (Cam) Newton 

The combination of Newton’s pocket awareness and the fear his athleticism inspires in defenses makes him capable of special out-of-structure playmaking. Newton out of structure reminds me of downhill playmakers in the NBA like LeBron James and Zion Williamson who’s drives collapse defenses and allow them to find open teammates. Newton creates gravity in much the same way. 

On this play against the Jets, Newton first avoids the mike linebacker by sliding to his left, but he sees that his receiver to that side is well-covered. Newton is agile enough to duck under the mike’s second tackle attempt and now the outside linebacker in coverage has to crash down to prevent Newton from scrambling. Jakobi Meyers works back into the space vacated by the linebacker and Newton finds him for a first down. 

Newton makes a similar play here against the Dolphins. Miami’s coverage holds up until Newton escapes to his right. Two of Miami’s three linebackers are drawn down by his rollout and James White is able to find the space. Newton’s pocket movement here is also just something to marvel at.

Newton’s ability to make plays both inside and outside of structure is the reason why I’m so high on him and I’d imagine that the Patriots feel the same way.

Serious inconsistencies

By far, Cam Newton’s biggest limitation is his inconsistent accuracy and at this point in his career I don’t think it’s realistic to expect him to completely eliminate it from his game. Newton will go from fitting a ball into a tight window on one down, hitting an out to the field on the next down and then completely skunking the ball on his next attempt. 

One thing that makes this inconsistency so frustrating is that Newton will often do everything perfectly before his throw just lets him down.  

On this play against Denver, Newton recognizes that the defense is sending more players than the Patriots can block. This means that he’s “hot” and it’s his responsibility to get rid of the ball quickly. Newton does that here, but he misses the throw wide.  Edelman has a really good chance to score a touchdown here if the ball is put on him in stride, but instead New England has to settle for a field goal. 

Newton’s inaccuracy can cost his team points in a meaningful way. As I mentioned earlier Newton is a sound decision-maker, so the majority of his interceptions come as a result of inaccurate passes. Newton’s placement can also sometimes limit his receiver’s opportunities for yards after the catch.

This play is a very good example of how poor placement by Newton can turn a play into a disaster. This ball is fast and behind Edlemen here and it turns into an interception. A short, wide-open throw across the middle should be a handoff for an NFL quarterback. Does Edleman hold some blame here? Absolutely, but Newton didn’t make it easy for him.

It is worth mentioning that while Newton’s accuracy hasn’t been consistent, he also has not played with many receivers who can routinely bail him out. 

What this all means for the new look Patriots

New England has made a few splashy signings early on in free agency, including a few new weapons which will be expected to help make new England a more explosive offense. Wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne and tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry are a few of the new faces in Foxborough. 

A wide receiver corps led by Agholor, Bourne, Edelman and N’Keal Harry will be more dynamic. All of those players are solid route runners who can uncover early in routes which should help foster an efficient quick passing game for the Pats. Henry and Smith are both very talented players and they’ll look to become one of the league’s best tight end duos. I’d like to see the Patriots experiment with more 13 personnel next season and specifically the play-action pass game out of those sets.

The biggest thing that is still missing for the Patriots is a bona fide number one threat. Finding one of those players is much easier said than done as there are only about a dozen people in the world who really fit that description. Still, we’ve never seen Newton play alongside a premiere offensive weapon and I can only help but imagine how adding a player like that would open up New England’s offense. 

Finally, there is the question of the Patriots’ offensive line. This is a topic that definitely deserves its own in-depth film study because how they play will go a long way to determining whether or not New England competes for a championship next season.

After a disappointing season from their two tackles, Trent Brown will be a sight for sore eyes in Foxborough. It’s also not unreasonable to expect Onwenuto to improve between following his rookie season. The loss of Joe Thuney however will be a major challenge for the unit going forward.

While Cam Newton still has the upside to carry a team deep into the playoffs I’m not yet sold on the Patriots’ offense. They certainly have some good young talent around Newton but as of right now I think they’re still a major piece away from becoming an offensive juggernaut on-par with the best of the AFC.

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