The New England Patriots have close to the maximum of 90 players under contract following free agency and the NFL Draft. From that group, only 53 players can make the roster and there are positional battles at all positions.
The Patriots will churn the back-end of the roster as they have done each postseason between the end of organized team activities (OTAs) and the beginning of training camp in July. With only a brief glance of very limited proactive activities, this time between OTAs and training camp is the last slow period before it is all football, all the time through February.
This makes right now the perfect time to check in on the depth and positional battles for each position on the roster for the New England Patriots.
Unlike last year, with cancelled offseason programs, camps, and preseason games, the Patriots roster was in flux throughout the seasons and depth was a clear issue. Add in surprising free agent defections (looking at you, Tommy-boy), the most player opt-outs in the NFL, and a lack of practice time during a strange Covid-19 tinged season, and 2020 was just one big pile of frustration for the most successful sports franchise of the 21st century.
The Patriots took care of those depth issues that caused major problems in 2020 (the roster depth was also an issue down the stretch in 2019, this did not come out of nowhere). A spending frenzy during free agency saw New England pick up a number of quality premium free agents. Add in another eight players via the NFL Draft, and unlike in 2020, this New England Patriots team should have more than enough depth.
Let’s jump in with the offense and take a look at the most compelling showdown: the quarterback position.
Quarterback: Cam Newton, Mac Jones, Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer
Bill Belichick has already named Cam Newton his starter at quarterback despite spending a first-round draft pick on Alabama quarterback Mac Jones. No problem, the job will belong to Jones in 2022 at the latest and maybe at some point during this season.
Remember, Bill Belichick was not afraid to cut franchise legend Bernie Kosar. In fact, I was old enough to remember reading about it in Sports Illustrated (see, in the 1980s and 1990s people would receive periodicals at home instead of reading them on their computer…yes, I’m old. Whatever. Read the story from 1993, it is still a fantastic read about “Cold fish Coach Bill Belichick”:
Fans may not remember, but benching Drew Bledsoe for Tom Brady was not an easy or popular decision back in 2001. Bledsoe was only 29 years old, had talent he Patriots to the Super Bowl, was breaking numerous team passing records, every fan had at least one “Bledsoe” jersey in their closet, and he had signed a ten-year contract for $103 million making him the highest paid player (passing Brett Favre) in the league that same year.
So, Kosar and Bledsoe out–yeah, Belichick would have no qualms cutting Cam Newton before the season if he gets outplayed by Mac Jones and Jarrett Stidham.
That said, that scenario is very unlikely. In looking at the roster, though, New England has many tough roster decisions on both sides of the ball due to this deep talent pool after free agency and the draft. That means that keeping three quarterbacks may be a luxury that New England cannot afford.
Newton should be in a position to improve dramatically in 2021. Look back at his first three games with the New England Patriots before contracting Covid-19 last season:
62 of 91 passing (68% completion rate), 714 yards, 2 touchdowns passing, 4 rushing touchdowns and 2 interceptions, 89.7 QB Rating, 35 rushes for 149 yards (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference unless otherwise noted).
He was better than advertised and another common denominator was a healthy Julian Edelman in those first three weeks. Edelman had 15 receptions for 259 yards in those first few weeks. Now, adding Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne should be a big lift for the offense in replacing Edelman.
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This has been glossed over this offseason. Yes, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith will give the offense a huge boost at tight end. However, both Agholor and Bourne, while not Julio Jones, are such good fits for this offense having both played in the slot and outside so far. Their versatility is key. Add in Bourne’s strength at the top of the route and Agholor’s ability to make big, explosive plays and this offense finally has some weapons.
Once Newton was back from missing the Kansas City game due to Covid-19, the loss of Edelman turned out to be a huge loss to the offense as a whole. Injuries popped up at running back and on the offensive line. Meanwhile, Newton had no choice but to try to work with Ryan Izzo, N’Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers and Damiere Byrd as his primary targets.
The 2020 season was a season of missed opportunities for Newton at quarterback and the New England Patriots as a team. Losses in four winnable games against Seattle (5 points and stopped at the one-yard line at the end of regulation), Denver (6 points, inside the 25-yard line with a chance to take the lead with 1:15 left to play), Buffalo (3 points, Newton fumbled inside the 20-yard line with less than a minute to play), and Houston (7 points, inside the Texans 25-yard line with 1:20 to play) were the difference between an 11 win Wild Card team and the 7-9 out-of-the-playoffs team.
Mac Jones is looking like he could be an excellent fit for the offense, but he will need time to learn and execute the complicated offense. The whole step-up from college to the pro game is huge for Jones. He will need to learn the offense and adjust to playing faster against NFL opposing defenses. In addition, in New England, he will have to have a handle on the offensive line protections.
This is a lot to expect Jones to have ready to go for September. Expect Jones only as an option if Newton is injured or the team is out of contention in the second half of the year. In other words, a redshirt season is likely for Jones in 2021.
That’s not to say there won’t be a ton of on-the-job learning for Jones. Training camp and the preseason will continue his learning. At the recently completed OTAs, Jones was thrown into the mix and expected to handle as much as Newton and Stidham. Make no doubt about it, he will get a fair chance to win the job.
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Jarrett Stidham may be in position to make a big step forward this summer. Another year in Foxboro means another year absorbing the offense. However, he has struggled with processing at game speed. Even in the recently completed OTAs, he continued to play at a slower speed than Newton and Jones.
That slow processing has been his Achilles heel in his brief time in game action. Stidham has a rocket arm, some mobility, and is seemingly picking up the offense. Clearly, he has the tools to be the quarterback in New England. The problem is that processing the offense. He holds the ball a split-second too long. He can slow down as the game speeds up. His career has been marred by inefficiency and turnovers.
Stidham still makes sense to keep as a backup next year when Newton presumably moves on. Next year it would be a surprise if Jones does not take the job. However, finding a back-up veteran quarterback is hardly a daunting task. The roster crunch may lead to Stidham being released or traded this season.
Finally, to the surprise of many, somehow Brian Hoyer is back for training camp. Yes, he is going to be cut barring multiple injuries at the position; however, he is a great “quarterback coach” and scout team quarterback for both Jones and Newton.
Do not discount Hoyer’s presence to help out Cam in the quarterback room. Everyone talks about Hoyer in Foxboro to assist in Jones’ development, but Newton is hardly well-versed in the offense. Hoyer’s presence may be more about Cam in 2021 rather than Jones in 2021.
Mac Jones is the future at quarterback for the New England Patriots, make no doubt about it. But Cam Newton gets the first shot behind center. However, having spent a boatload of Bob Kraft’s money this offseason, expect a short leash for Cam, especially if Mac pushes him as expected all summer.
Unlike last season, where Hoyer was clearly not good enough in his one start against Kansas City and Stidham was even worse coming off the bench, the Patriots are in no position to hand the quarterback job to anyone who cannot take advantage of the strong defense and running game and make enough plays to win those games.
With Newton in year two in New England and presumably his shoulder and foot healthier and an offseason to work on his throwing mechanics, he should be improved. Add in legitimate competition from Mac Jones to push him, and this year the New England Patriots may see the Cam Newton they expected in 2020.
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