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Patriots 2020 Preview: Cam Newton Signs, Stidham the Future?

Cam Newton Signs with Patriots

One of the biggest – if not THE biggest storylines of the NFL offseason was where would Tom Brady be playing football for the 2020-2021 season. In a shocking turn of events, Brady chose to leave New England, the team that drafted him and won six Super Bowls with him over a 20-year span. Brady decided to move down south to Tampa Bay, leaving the starting quarterback role for the Patriots in the hands of second-year gunslinger Jarrett Stidham. That is until Cam Newton signed with the Patriots over this past weekend.

The Patriots surprised everyone when they signed Cam Newton to a one-year deal reportedly worth up to $7.5 million. Newton, 31, was lost to foot surgery in 2019 and was then cut by the Carolina Panthers at the end of the season. Newton won the NFL MVP award back in 2015, after leading the Panthers to Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara.

Cam Newton comes to New England in a “prove-it” contract that he hopes to leverage into a big contract next year.

Short Term Long Term

If the Patriots wanted to rebuild, you’d know it. Veteran players would be traded for picks and Stidham would get his chance at the helm as the team looks to get younger through the next year’s NFL Draft. But with Newton on the team, it appears the Pat’s want to continue to be competitive this season. Which is exciting for fans, and exciting for football in general. It’s like an epic rock band splitting up with the lead singer trying to do his own thing. Both teams will constantly be compared to each other all season, creating a new rivalry.

But what are the team’s long term plans? The Patriots have never been about paying top dollar to their free agents in the past, so odds are if Cam Newton can springboard his one year stint with the Pat’s into something bigger, what are the Patriots to do next year?

Is Stidham Still The Future?

Jarrett StidhamJarrett Stidham, a 2019 fourth-round draft pick out of Auburn, made headlines last season after the Patriots not only decided to keep him on the week one roster but release long-time backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. In doing so, Stidham was the only QB on the roster beyond Brady, showing the Patriots’ trust in Stidham.

Coming into college, Stidham was ranked as either a four-star or five-star prospect by Scout, Rivals & ESPN. He signed with Baylor and while he started as a back-up, he would step as their starter following an injury to their starter, Seth Russell. Stidham finished with impressive stats including a 68.8% completion percentage, 11.6 yards per attempt, 13.0 AY/A (adjusted passing yards per attempt), 199.0 passer efficiency rating & a 12/2 touchdown-to-interception-ratio. As he started the year as a back-up and did not get many snaps until Russell’s injury, his stats didn’t qualify. But to put it in perspective, his completion percentage would’ve been fourth-best, and his YPA, AY/A & passer efficiency rating would’ve been best in the nation.

Following a transfer, he started his last two seasons as the starting quarterback for Auburn. In 2017, he was their starter for the entire season that ended with him being named a 1st-team All-SEC selection. He had another great statistical season with his completion percentage ranking sixth (66.5%), YPA ranking 12th (8.5 yards), AY/A ranking 17th (8.8 yards) & 18th in passer efficiency rating (151.0). His season included throwing for 213 yards & three touchdowns with no interceptions in an upset blowout of second-ranked Georgia (40-17). He also helped lead Auburn to a 26-14 upset win over first-ranked Alabama as well. And while his final season at the collegiate level did not hit the same levels, he still had a respectable year with 2,794 passing yards, a 60.7% completion percentage, 7.6 YPA, 7.9 AY/A, 137.7 passer efficiency rating and 18/5 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Going into the 2019 preseason as a rookie, Stidham stood out and gave Patriots fans hope of their potential successor to Brady. He would finish with 731 passing yards (second-most of any quarterback), a 67.8% completion percentage (ninth-best), 8.1 YPA (second-most), a 102.6 QB rating (sixth-best) and a 4/1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. And he did that with his top five receivers including rookie undrafted free agents Jakobi Meyers & Gunner Olszewski along with 2018 sixth-round draft pick Braxton Berrios. He would barely see the field during the regular season with only four passing attempts.

So he has a lot to prove (and big shoes to fill) as the starting quarterback. But as we saw from his limited action in the NFL (albeit the pre-season) and his time as a full-time starter in college, he has shown that he can put up a solid stat line when given the opportunity. And that’s not even mentioning his red-zone rushing capabilities, where he scored nine rushing touchdowns in college. He has also shown the ability for good decision-making as he had nearly a four touchdown-to-interception ratio during his collegiate career (48 touchdowns to 13 interceptions).

Plus, he comes in with a very underrated offense at his disposal. PFF ranked the Patriots offensive line as the 10th best in 2019 with four of their five starters returning. And the only change among the o-line will be David Andrews, who is slated to return to his starting center position after sitting out the 2019 season due to a pulmonary embolism. And this offensive line (Isaiah Wynn-Joe Thuney-Andrews-Shaq Mason-Marcus Cannon) is the same line that was ranked by PFF as the fourth-best offensive line in 2018.

Patriots 2020 Roster Preview

Looking at the playmakers on this New England team, there is a strong argument to be made that this an even better group than the one that was the seventh-highest scoring offense last season. It’ll return its entire running back group (Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead & Damien Harris) along with the majority of its wide receiver room (Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Mohamed Sanu & Jakobi Meyers).

Examining their running back group first, the Patriots underwhelmed overall in 2019. Coming into his second year, Michel had high expectations after breaking out in the playoffs the season before with 336 rushing yards & six touchdowns on 71 carries. But Michel fell short of expectations with 912 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 247 carries (3.7 yards per carry). Overall, he finished 30th of 45th amongst running backs with 100+ carries with a DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) of 23, according to Football Outsiders. And that is compared to finishing 24th out of 47th in his rookie season.

For White, he adds the valuable receiving component to the group. But in 2019, he wasn’t able to fully replicate his extremely strong 2018 season. White saw the second-most targets of all running backs (123), had the third-highest DYAR (194), and finished first in effective yards (907) amongst all NFL running backs on the receiving side. But in 2019, White still respectfully ranked fifth amongst all receiving running backs in DYAR (142), sixth in targets (95) & third in effective yards (647).

But seeing as both Michel & White are only one season removed from having strong seasons, it is not unreasonable to expect that either (if not both) of them to rebound with a strong offensive line returning. Plus, with a change at quarterback, we could definitely see the Patriots offensive philosophy change to rely more on the run game to balance out their production and keep opposing defenses on their toes. And in the case of White, a veteran & reliable pass-catcher out of the backfield is always going to be a very strong asset for a quarterback.

In regards to the wide receiver group, a lot of clamoring took place over the majority of last season and this offseason because of its perceived lack of value. Back in May, PFF ranked the Patriots’ receiving corp group as the third-worst (30th overall) in the NFL. Leading this group is Julian Edelman, the 34-year old slot receiver coming off one of his best statistical seasons in 2019 with a receiving line of 100 receptions (fifth-most of all pass-catchers), 1,1117 receiving yards (18th most) & six touchdowns on 153 targets (fourth-most). But he did also, unfortunately, lead the NFL in drops with 13 as well. But Edelman did deal with multiple injuries in 2019, including shoulder & knee issues that led to him requiring surgery this offseason, per Boston Herald’s Karen Guregian. He also dealt with a rib injury as well. So with him coming into the 2020 season healthy once again, he will be heavily relied upon as one of Stidham’s go-to targets in the passing game.

Mohamed SanuSurprisingly, the Patriots traded a 2020 second-round pick to the Falcons in exchange for veteran receiver Mohamed Sanu near the trade deadline last season. Sanu spent most of his time with New England dealing with a high-ankle injury that he suffered shortly into his career with the Patriots that eventually required surgery this past offseason. But we saw a glimpse of what he can provide to the offense when he had 10 receptions for 81 yards and a touchdown only a couple of weeks after being acquired. He has been regarded as much of an after-thought but he has since recovered from his ankle surgery and is working hard in his first offseason with the team, his trainer told ESPN’s Mike Reiss.

The other core player in the Patriots wide receiver room is 2019 first-round draft pick, N’Keal Harry. The second-year receiver got off to a less-than-ideal start in his rookie season, suffering an ankle injury in the preseason and being placed on injured reserve before the regular season began. He would be activated and get minimal playing time over the second half of the season, finishing with 12 receptions, 105 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Despite the injury and lack of consistent playing time, there was still encouraging signs from Harry’s play. Seven of his 12 receptions resulted in a first down and he had two touchdowns despite only 12 catches (to be fair, he should’ve had a third touchdown).

Harry is only one year removed from being a first-round pick and he still has a very high ceiling in an offense looking for receivers to step up. In his last two seasons at Arizona State, he had receiving stat lines of 82/1,142/8 & 73/1,088/9. And according to Player Profiler, he tested extremely well. Harry’s college dominator score was 43.9% (which is in the 89th percentile), his college target share was 28.8% (81st percentile) & his workout metrics includes three above the 75th percentile (catch radius, burst score, and speed score). And according to Kent Platte’s Relative Athletic Scores, Harry also has a strong 8.42 RAS, showing his athleticism along with his impressive recruiting numbers. So he has the ability to not only be a productive receiver but one who can handle and be successful as a team’s #1 wide receiver. And with him going into now his second season with the team and the always-daunting rookie year in the past now, there is still a lot of optimism about Harry’s future.

But going into last season, their offense’s biggest flaw was their depth at the tight end position which suffered without former All-Pro Rob Gronkowski. They addressed that in a big way this offseason as they drafted rookies Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi, both third-round selections. Both rookies broke out in 2019 in their own ways.

While Keene only saw 26 targets, he had an 80.8 catch rate and five touchdowns, so just under 25% of his receptions resulted in a touchdown. He also tested really well athletically, scoring in the 81st percentile with his SPARQ-x score of 117.6 and his forty-yard dash (4.71), speed score (102.3), burst score (122), agility score (11.26) & catch radius (10.11) all ranking in the 70th or better percentile amongst NFL tight ends according to Player Profiler. And in regards to his RAS score, Keene scored a 9.34 (out of 10) and ranked 2nd amongst the entire 2020 tight end class.

Asiasi was more relied upon in his final season at UCLA with 44 receptions (on 70 targets), 641 receiving yards and four touchdowns for a healthy 16.4% target share. He also showed an ability to make big plays every time he touches the ball with a 21.7 yard-per-reception mark in his sophomore season and 14.6 YPR in 2019, which is in the 73rd percentile of collegiate tight ends. Asiasi still tested in the top half of the 2020 tight end class with a 6.11 RAS, good for 15th amongst 2020 tight end prospects.

So with looking at the Patriots offense as a whole, they come into 2020 with a group that underperformed overall but has the ceiling to achieve much better results. Between a top unit at offensive line, solid depth at running back & a mix of proven veterans and young, athletic players at wide receiver and tight end, New England has the opportunity to prove a lot of people wrong. And be able to have it translate in fantasy football as well.

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