The New England Patriots are still struggling to adjust to life after Tom Brady. Losing Brady was obviously going to hurt the team, but the question was how severe the effects would be. In the first year after No. 12 left Foxborough, the impact was enormous, bigger than a lot of people probably expected.
A reasonable assessment of the Pats after Brady, heading into the 2020 season, was that they would be in the playoff hunt and right on the edge of qualification. That would generally mean a 9-7 record, maybe 10-6, maybe 8-8.
The Patriots fell to 7-9, and moreover, it’s not as though they were 7-5 and then lost their last four games. The Patriots were always underwater in the 2020 season. They tried desperately to make a run but were playing under .500 for most of their stretch run.
Patriots Betting Odds – Starting QB?
Cam Newton, who came over from the Carolina Panthers, clearly did not give the Patriots and Bill Belichick his best effort. His throwing arm also didn’t seem to be up to the job. He could throw 12-yard passes with reasonable zip, but struggled to throw a good deep ball and strong 20-yard out patterns.
It is not an absolute lock that Newton will be the Week 1 starter, but as the incumbent, he still has the inside track. Let’s look at the situation in Foxborough:
To be Patriots starting QB first game of the 2021 season: Odds At FanDuel Sportsbook: -185
The NJ sports betting favorite for the job is still Newton. Keep in mind that 2020 was an adjustment year for him and that the pandemic limited New England’s practice time, as was the case for other NFL teams. Also keep in mind that due to the pandemic, the Patriots were deprived of a home-field advantage.
There are weird aspects to the 2020 season, enough to offer the legitimate hope that Cam Newton simply had a bad year and that he is more than capable of bouncing back and playing a good bit better in 2021.
One particular reason the Patriots have to bring back Newton as the Week 1 starter is that they didn’t have very good pass catchers this past season. They made multiple moves in the offseason to address that particular deficiency. They picked up receiver Nelson Agholor from the Las Vegas Raiders.
The Patriots know how good Agholor is because Agholor caught several passes for the Philadelphia Eagles when they defeated the Pats in Super Bowl LII a few years ago. The Patriots also picked up tight end Jonnu Smith from the Tennessee Titans. This is a direct acknowledgment that Newton did not have high-quality receivers this past year. That would in turn mean that the organization wants to see what Newton can do with a much better group of backs and receivers.
The undeniable limitation for Newton, however, is that he doesn’t have a full-strength throwing arm, or at least not a throwing arm which has yet to be proven in live game action. Newton has taken a lot of hits in his career, in part because of his willingness to run the ball in and through contact. Newton has sometimes been a quarterback who played like a linebacker.
With the Panthers, he was a rugged runner who never shied away from a hit… but now that accumulation of hits has caught up with him. It has affected his shoulder and, accordingly, the strength of his throws.
Mac Jones, the backup, has a live arm and has taken very few hits. The main thing to watch with Newton in the preseason is if he takes a lot of hits. If he is banged up heading into Week 1, the Patriots could slot in Jones as a temporary starter before bringing Newton back in Week 2 or 3.
Projected Win Total With Newton: Nine Wins
To be Patriots starting QB first game of the 2021 season: Odds At FanDuel Sportsbook: +170
The rationale for Jones beating out Cam Newton was mentioned above: Jones is physically fresher and has a much younger, stronger throwing arm. Moreover, Jones has – by most accounts – been impressive in rookie minicamp and other Patriots workouts preceding summer training camp. He is doing things to move up the ladder, instead of hurting his standing in the quarterback room.
The big limitation with Jones is this: At Alabama, he had such great wide receivers – two top-10 draft picks, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith – and such a great offensive line that he very rarely got hit, let alone sacked. Jones was often able to get the ball out quickly to his receivers and allow them to run after the catch in open space.
Jones had time to throw deep balls – he just didn’t see a whole lot of pressure. At the NFL level, where talent imbalances don’t exist – a marked departure from his college days at Alabama – he is going to face a lot more pressure, and it is a complete unknown if he is ready to handle the heat.
It will obviously be important for Jones to have a brilliant preseason in which he consistently responds well to pressure. He has to have a stellar set of preseason games to have any realistic shot at the starting job in Week 1. Keep in mind that in the preseason, NFL defensive coordinators use simplified schemes as opposed to showing a full defensive playbook – they are saving the more complex schemes for the regular season.
Even if a rookie does well in preseason games, there is an awareness that he is performing against lesser schemes. Jones’ margin for error, measured strictly by whether he can get the Opening Day start, is extremely small in the upcoming preseason.
Projected Win Total With Jones: Seven Wins
To be Patriots starting QB first game of the 2021 season: Odds At DraftKings Sportsbook: +950
The third-stringer had been a second-stringer, but will now be behind Jones on the depth chart in Foxborough. He is a moderately competent quarterback who can at least complete short passes, but he can’t do much more than that. It has been painfully clear how limited the Patriots are when Stidham is the quarterback on the field. Their ceiling gets lowered if he starts a game for this team.
Projected Win Total With Stidham: Five Wins