Cam Newton's Fantasy Impact on the Patriots Offense
Cam Newton Joins the New England Patriots
On the same day that the New England Patriots were hit with another fine and punishment for yet another scandal, the club managed to make positive headlines by coming to terms with veteran free agent QB Cam Newton on a 1-year, incentive-laden deal. While Bill Belichick and company spent most of the offseason talking up QB Jarret Stidham, Newton is a massive upgrade when healthy and could turn out to just the next shrewd move for the Patriots ongoing dynasty.
Newton was the NFL MVP in 2015 and has posted top-5 fantasy numbers in every season in which he suited up for all 16 games. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened in three of the past four seasons as a myriad of injuries has plagued the 31-year-old signal-caller. Still, Newton has been rehabbing hard and is expected to be ready to go when the 2020 NFL season kicks off.
If he's 100%, Newton brings a new element to the Patriots offense and his presence in the starting lineup would have a major impact on how New England moves on from Tom Brady.
Newton's run in Carolina
Since being nabbed with the first overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, Newton had a fairly successful nine-year run with the Panthers, including an appearance in Super Bowl 50. Newton's only 4000-yard passing season occurred in his rookie campaign but he developed into one of the league's best dual-threat quarterbacks and became a monster in fantasy leagues. Disregarding a 2019 season in which he barely played two games, Newton averaged well over 20 fantasy points per game. Newton was top-8 in weekly scoring in every season but 2016.
Newton's passing numbers have never overwhelmed, but it's supplemented his value by averaging 38.4 rushing yards per game. He's also the NFL's all-time QB leader with 58 rushing touchdowns, which bodes well for a New England club that is annually among the league leaders in ground scores. But after suffering multiple shoulder surgeries and still recovering from a devastating Lisfranc injury, it's fair to wonder if Newton is still capable of being a threat to run for 500-plus yards and punch in six-plus scores.
Without premium rushing production, there is cause for concern. Newton has never been an accurate passer and his adjusted yards per attempt figure has declined quite significantly since his MVP season. However, no team does a better job of adjusting their offense to suit their own personnel than Bill Belichick's Patriots, so we can fully expect Josh McDaniels to completely re-work the playbook and cater his play-calling to fit Newton's strengths.
Distribution of Targets
Those unimpressive yards per attempt numbers indicate that Newton has tended to rely on shorter throws to running backs and tight ends rather than force the ball downfield. In nine seasons, only two wide receivers managed to lead the Panthers in targets in a season. Steve Smith managed to do it twice in Newton's first two years and Kelvin Benjamin did it in 2014.
TE Greg Olsen led Carolina in targets in 2013, 2015, and 2016, while RB Christian McCaffrey topped the targets leaderboard in 2017 and 2018. McCaffrey also led Carolina in targets last season but that was a lost year for Newton.
Carolina has had some talented wideouts over the years and they were still able to make an impact, but Newton feels more comfortable relying on outlet receivers and using his legs rather than pressing the ball downfield to his perimeter receivers. This approach should actually fit New England well as the Patriots have had difficulties drafting and developing solid wide receivers and have had a lot of success funneling their offense through the tight ends and running backs.
Newton's fit with the New England Offense
For years now the Patriots have heavily-utilized pass-catching running backs and tight ends as key contributors to Tom Brady's offense. WR Julian Edelman also played a key role and was annually among the NFL's most-targeted receivers. While Brady was renowned for his accuracy and ability to avoid interceptions, Cam Newton has different strengths and that means that McDaniels and Belichick will have to adjust their new offense to fit Newton.
One thing we will almost certainly see is more rushing attempts. RB Sony Michel looked quite sluggish last season but will likely get the chance to open the 2020 campaign with the early-down work. Michel is also the preferred option in short-yardage but Newton also excels in those situations and is a sneaky bet to lead the club in rushing touchdowns.
James White should actually be the best fantasy option in New England's backfield, particularly if Newton's history of targeting his backs early and often holds true. White has averaged over 100 targets over the past two seasons and is a strong bet to do so once again in 2020. That makes White an excellent RB3/FLEX option in PPR leagues and means he's a solid value at his current ADP.
Don't discount Rex Burkhead as an end-of-the-draft flier. The Patriots don't give Burkhead double-digit touches very often but he's a solid receiver as well as a capable runner, particularly in short-yardage. If Michel continues to falter, Burkhead could become quite fantasy relevant.
Tight end is more uncertain as the Patriots will go to war with Matt LaCosse- who saw only 19 targets in 2019- atop the depth chart. Along with the unproven LaCosse, Belichick selected a pair of tight ends in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. UCLA's Devin Asiasi has some solid route-running and downfield ability, while Virginia Tech's Dalton Keene could excel as an in-line option with red-zone prowess.
Edelman will remain the No. 1 receiver but without the timing and trust that was acquired with years under Tom Brady's tutelage, Edelman is almost certainly going to see a significant regression in opportunities. He's also 34-years old and starting to succumb to injuries. While still the best bet to lead the receiving corps in targets, Edelman's days of posting reliable weekly WR2 numbers are likely over and he's more of a WR3/FLEX option in PPR leagues.
Sophomore N'Keal Harry showed some flashes as a rookie and fared decently in many of Fantasy Data's Advanced Wide Receiver Metrics. Establishing a strong running game will likely be paramount to the 2020 New England offense and that should open things up for Newton to take shots downfield to Harry, who at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds could develop into a potent red-zone weapon.
Mohamed Sanu had a huge debut after being acquired for a second-rounder but managed to all but disappear down the stretch. Since the Patriots haven't added much competition, Sanu should open the season as the starter opposite of Harry, but Sanu is better utilized as a slot receiver and will have difficulty shaking coverage on the perimeter and securing enough slot targets with Edelman locked inside.
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Jody is a member of both the Pro Football Writer's of America (PFWA) and Fantasy Sports Writer's Association (FSWA) and has been covering the NFL and fantasy football for over a decade. Jody won FantasyPro's Most Accurate Expert contest and also garnered the FSTA's accuracy award in 2012. A Houston native, Jody has covered the Texans locally since 2016 for both digital and radio audiences. Past writing stops include CBS Sportsline, Gridiron Experts, Pro Football Focus, Fanball, FantasyPro's. Jody is also a frequent guest on SiriusXM and Houston radio and his work regularly appears in print on newsstands each summer.