FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The first thing I noticed about Cam Newton as a Patriot was pretty straightforward: Being a Patriot hasn’t changed him.
The football field has always been where the 31-year-old is most in his element, and as he boisterously skipped on to the practice fields just south of Gillette Stadium, at 9:53 a.m. ET on Tuesday, his energy announced to everyone that the ex-MVP was clocking in for work. Less than a minute later, Newton playfully yelled—loudly—to a camera crew in the stands. Three minutes after that, he was taking snaps with the other quarterbacks.
It’s a good sign, too, that he’s in this place, both physically and metaphorically. The place itself, Foxboro, has been a really fortuitous one for players at Newton’s position, and not just the one he’s vying to replace. As for the place he’s in mentally, that Cam looked like the same old Cam is important, just as important as the uniform he’s wearing.
This is the thing about Newton—he’s never been kneecapped as a football player like he was over the last 22 months. His 2018 season was cut short by a second shoulder surgery in as many calendar years. His 2019 season was essentially over before it started when he hurt his foot, coincidentally, a deep ball away from this practice field, on the Gillette Stadium turf last summer. The coach who drafted him was fired. Then, he was cut.
Superman really wasn’t Superman anymore. And for an athlete of Newton’s caliber, the fact that he couldn’t trust the ability that made him superior was a tough pill to swallow.
That’s why, having covered Cam for close to a decade, I took what I saw on Tuesday in Foxboro as a significant positive. If he’s bouncing around like himself again, he probably feels like himself again, which puts him where he needs to be. And ultimately, that will help get him where the Patriots need to him to be as they turn a significant page in the Bill Belichick era in New England.
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I’m on the road, and we’re taking you there over the next week on the site. So today, right here in the GamePlan, you’ll find …
• A ranking of training camp storylines.
• Some advice for draft prospects.
• How the holdout rules are messing with guys.
But we’re starting with the Patriots, and Newton, in Foxboro.
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Watching Newton practice on Tuesday brought me back to an empty gym in Spartanburg, S.C., where I met with him last summer. He, then-Panthers quarterbacks Scott Turner and I were talking about how Newton learns, and he raised the point that he wanted to keep most of it off the field.
The reason? Because Newton wants to simulate game speed on the practice field. He wants to be reacting out there, playing fast. So he concentrates all his mental work into the classroom, and into some of his downtime at home. That way, on the field, he can just go.
“I treat practice as if it’s game-like, I think that’s the only way you can get better,” Newton said. “At practice, I don’t look at scripts. I hate looking at scripts, because you never know what the next situation is going to be, you don’t know if you’re gonna get a first down in the game or not, it’s gonna be third and what? You have to be able to think as if it’s a game and make it as game-like as possible.
“So throughout the practice, all those things I’ve seen, from fleet motion, swap motion or shifts, things like that, to actual route concepts, it becomes muscle memory when it’s written down and you go over as many times as I have, just looking at it. … Football is not a physical sport, it’s a reacting sport, whoever reacts faster. As a quarterback, obviously you’re the thinker, so if you think faster, then you’re reacting faster than the defense.”
With that in mind (and the Patriots do limit some of what we can report here), I watched Newton intently on Tuesday, to build a tick-tock of the quarterback in his new element. That, again, started with Newton bounding out from the stadium (9:53 a.m.), yelling into the stands (9:54 a.m.), and taking snaps from center with the other QBs (9:57 a.m.)
10 a.m.: Tupac’s “Ambitionz Az a Ridah” blares from the speakers. Newton’s voice is clearly the loudest during stretch. In that sense, again, he’s just who he was in Carolina.
10:07 a.m.: The offense starts practice with a walkthrough, and the first rotation of quarterbacks is there. Jarrett Stidham takes snaps with the first group, Newton with the second group, Brian Hoyer with the third group. And it doesn’t take long to see that the order in which they take snaps, and groups with which they’re paired, will change during literally every practice period.
10:11 a.m.: Hoyer and Stidham are throwing to one another in individuals, and Newton and undrafted rookie Brian Lewerke are doing the same. (It’s noticeable before long how Newton’s taken a liking to Lewerke. Newton has always been good with young QBs—guys like Kyle Allen and Will Grier loved him in Carolina).
10:17 a.m.: Pat-and-go. The quarterbacks are warming their arms up, with Hoyer and Stidham to one side, and Newton and Lewerke to another. Not much to see here.
10:19 a.m.: Quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch has the quarterbacks working on spot throws, and this is where you can see Newton’s got the pop in his arm—and funky release, where it almost looks like he’s aiming to put air under a throw, yet the ball comes darting out. On one set of throws, Fisch has the quarterbacks throwing off play-action, and Newton uncorks lasers from the far hashmark to the left sideline that show where his velocity is at.
10:27 a.m.: Quarterbacks with the backs on run-game stuff, and play-action, split into two groups on opposite ends of the field.
10:32 a.m.: Another sign of how quarterbacks are being rotated—halfway through the period, Hoyer and Stidham switch ends of the field.
10:37 a.m.: The Patriots are in tackling pursuit drills, giving the quarterbacks some downtime. Newton is at Fisch’s side the whole time.
10:40 a.m.: New England goes into passing lines. And a couple things are notable there. First, during the drill, which OC Josh McDaniels is overseeing, Cam is talking with N’Keal Harry, Mohamed Sanu and Devin Asiasi. Second, between turns, Newton is getting extra throws with Lewerke.
10:46 a.m.: 11-on-11s begin. During one sequence, Stidham is in, and Newton is listening to the playcall, then mimicking the quarterback footwork behind the offense, to record a sort of mental rep.
10:55 a.m.: More 11-on -11 work, this period seemingly focused more on the run game, and now Bill Belichick is standing behind the offense.
11:02 a.m.: 7-on-7s, and maybe the most notable moment came when Stidham threw a second consecutive pick and was replaced by Newton in the drill.
11:09 a.m.: More 11-on-11, and we get another glimpse of Newton’s arm strength, when he lets go of an absolute moonshot to his ex-Carolina teammate Damiere Byrd. Byrd’s known for his speed, but he can’t quite catch up to this ball, which overshoots him by two or three yards.
11:18 a.m.: The Patriots offense gets another 11-on-11 period, then, by 11:22, it’s time for special teams. And at that point, Newton’s back over with Fisch again.
11:35 a.m.: The team does two-minute work, then finishes practice with a red-zone period. Newton’s last throw in a competitive drill? A touchdown pass to Damien Harris.
And with that touchdown pass, Newton, Harris and the offense celebrated, and after that it was off to “Mount Belichick”—the conditioning hill at the far end of the practice field—for uphill gassers to cap the two-hour session.
Newton going up and down that hill with his teammates is a reminder of two things: 1) He’s not being handed anything here. Per the Patriots rules, we can’t give you the depth chart order for all the specific drills. So I’ll say this—if you had no idea who Newton, Stidham, and Hoyer were, and were going strictly off what you saw in practice on Tuesday, you’d be 100 percent sold this is a real competition and no decisions have been made yet. Most of us believe Newton’s starting. But Belichick himself is not signaling that in any way. 2) Newton seems to like it here, and that makes sense because Newton does carry the one prerequisite for playing here—He loves football. And the truth is, what it really took for that to become apparent again was good health and a good situation. For now, it looks like he has both.
What that equated to, from what I could see Tuesday, was someone who enjoyed being at a Belichick practice. If you know what Newton’s gone through to get here, that makes sense. In fact, during that talk we had last summer, he gave some insight into that, when we discussed how tough the shoulder injury of 2018 was on him.
“The frustrating thing for me was looking at it and saying, ‘I can’t practice. I want to practice. I can’t. And if I practice now, will I be able to play?’” he said. “It was such a frustrating time [in 2018], because we were having such a great year. And outside of four or five games, where we lost by four or five points, who knows? Maybe that makes the difference.
“The frustrating thing is, and the whole encompassing message for the NFL, is how long can everybody stay healthy? And that was our demise.”
He didn’t know it then, but it would become his demise once more a few weeks later. Now that he’s back again? You can only imagine how much he’d value the chance to be out on an NFL field, even if it’s just practice, for now.
And on Tuesday, I didn’t have to imagine. I could see that with my own two eyes. Which, if you consider Newton’s history, is a pretty big step to getting back to where he wants to be.
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It’s camp! Real camp now! So with that, I’m bringing you guys what I see as the five most critical training-camp questions on the road to Tampa in February. You’re welcome …
1. Who is the Patriots quarterback? We obviously dove into that. I’m not in the business of counting Bill Belichick teams out, but that is one mighty big question that they’ll have to answer. If Cam’s old Cam? Again, don’t count Belichick out. And of course, the attached storyline here is how much Tom Brady has left, and what the two New England legends look like apart. And speaking of 40-something QBs …
2. How much does Drew Brees have left? O.K., so here’s another I’m not in the business of counting out. But he turns 42 in January, and the last two seasons haven’t ended in the fashion he would’ve liked. So yes, this is about what Brees is bringing to the table now. But more so, it’s about where he’ll be come January. It’s an important question, in my mind, because the roster around him is positively loaded.
3. Where does the Ravens offense go next? So we’ve seen teams in the past burst on to the scene employing college concepts—the Broncos did in 2011, and Washington and the Niners did shortly thereafter. What we haven’t seen as much (the Cam Newton Panthers would be the one exception) is a team that’s made it sustainable. The key for the Ravens will be staying ahead of defensive coordinators who spent the offseason catching up to them. Know what? I trust Greg Roman to do it.
4. Can the Niners defense duplicate what it did last year? DeForest Buckner is gone, with rookie Javon Kinlaw essentially taking his spot. Nick Bosa is a year older. Arik Armstead is back. Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander are healthy. The secondary is intact. The bar is high, of course. But the talent’s there, and combining that kind of group with an offense run by Kyle Shanahan puts the Niners in a good place.
5. Can Josh Allen take a big step forward? Anyone who’s been here the last few months knows I’m big on the Bills’ prospects—and the 26-and-under talent base there is undeniable (Stefon Diggs, Dion Dawkins, Ed Oliver, Tremaine Edmunds, Tre’Davious White, etc.). So how Allen plays could be the difference between playoff contender and real Super Bowl threat.
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THE BIG QUESTION
Should players leave school to prepare for the 2021 draft?
This is a question being asked by next year’s prospects from coast-to-coast. And the more I’ve talked to people about it, the more I’m convinced of this: The great majority of guys who want to opt-out are probably are best off remaining on scholarship and staying with their teammates through the fall. And I say that not because of what they’ll gain by doing it. It’s more the idea you shouldn’t eliminate anything.
“You have a whole bunch of options in front of you,” said a coach from a major-conference program. “Why cut your options in half? What if you take the money (from an agent), and get hurt? What if everyone moves the season to January, and other kids get to play an eight-game schedule, and now you don’t have that option? Why reduce the amount of information you could have before making a decision like that?”
Now, there is temptation for players. The idea of spending the next six months in Miami or Phoenix free of other responsibility is a lot to pass up for a 21-year-old, especially if there’s a six-figure stipend attached to it. There’s also the concept that you could get ahead of other kids in the race to draft day.
But let’s just say you’re a player in the Big Ten or Pac-12 right now, and you’re not playing in the fall anyway. Chances are, you’ve got a top-shelf strength coach training you, and a world-class facility to work in, as good or better than what you might find out on the draft-prep market. What are you losing by staying? Maybe the other guy gets a jump on working on his start out of a track stance for the 40 in Indy. That’s probably it.
In staying, you’ll get another semester towards your degree (which isn’t nothing), you’ll leave open the option of returning to school in 2021 or playing in some sort of spring season, and you’ll be (presumably) put through rigorous testing aimed at keeping you and your teammates safe. You’ll also get more football work—the NCAA has approved practices for teams that won’t play games in the fall. You won’t be accruing debt while you’re at all this.
And as our coach alluded to, if you get hurt, would you rather have it happen on campus, with your eligibility intact, or off somewhere else, with everything tethered to your draft stock?
At first, I thought a lot of guys would have a tough call on this, and some do. It’s certainly understandable why Micah Parsons or Greg Rousseau bailed—those guys are surefire first-round picks and freakish talents who aren’t going to get passed in the pecking order based on whether a college season happens or not. But the reality is, most guys aren’t Micah Parsons or Greg Rousseau. The more I dug into it, I figured out that, if you’re not a first-rounder (and this is excluding kids who have personal reasons for leaving or feel unsafe in their football programs), this actually shouldn’t be that tough a call. Stay on campus. Get better. Reassess in December. Pretty simple, logical plan, if you ask me.
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WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
How the holdout rules could create really contentious situations in the fall.
You may have read about Dalvin Cook’s situation—he’s been held out of team drills early in camp as his camp and the Vikings negotiate a new contract. You also may have seen where DeAndre Hopkins’ early days as a Cardinal could be affected by the same sort of thing. And you should know that in both cases, the new holdout rules have really backed the players into a corner where their options in making a run at a contract are very limited.
The history on this actually goes back to the 2011 CBA. On the heels of Darrelle Revis’s very lucrative 2010 holdout (and others like it), NFL owners prioritized strengthening the anti-lockout regulations. And for years, it worked. Kam Chancellor was the first veteran player to really push the envelope under those rules, and that was in the sixth year of that CBA.
But more recently, things changed. Aaron Donald used a holdout effectively. Khalil Mack did too. So when the NFL and NFLPA returned to the bargaining table, the owners want to go even further with the holdout rules.
The result: Stricter reporting rules and heavier fines. Before, a player had to report within the first 30 days of camp to get the accrued year towards free agency. Now? A player has to report on time—meaning Cook would be an RFA, rather than a UFA, if he held out even for a single day. And allowable fines increased from $40,000 to $50,000, and could only be waived for players on rookie deals. That means all fines assessed to Hopkins would be final.
On paper, all of that is great for teams. The problem is when it’s put into practice, it can lead to acrimony, with guys who don’t feel like they have levers to pull to get their financial due.
So keep an eye on Cook, Hopkins, and other guys who might be in line for a new contract (there are quite a few from the 2016 draft class), and how they all handle the coming weeks. If there’s a lot on their minds, that’d be understandable.
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THE FINAL WORD
I’m headed out to Giants practice now, with the Patriots and Jets in the books. We’ve got Eagles, Ravens and then Florida on tap after that—so be sure to follow along on Twitter (@albertbreer) and Instagram (@albert_breer).
Lots of stuff to come there, including camp observations from inside those buildings. And if there’s anything you guys are looking for, don’t hesitate to hit me up and ask.