There's no question new Patriots quarterback Cam Newton is extremely talented and, when healthy, one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL.
Notice I didn't say passer.
When you're a pocket QB like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, you're only a passer and that's what you get judged on. But if you're Newton or another quarterback who is able to make big, drive-sustaining plays on the ground, that's also part of the equation and must be a consideration. Newton may not be the passer that Brady is, but when you combine the throwing and the running, Newton isn't far off from being an equitable quarterback.
Covering the NFL, I've studied Newton and his Panthers offense over the years, from their dynamite 2015 running game (which I would expect the Patriots to borrow some because it fits a lot of what they already do) to the passing offensive struggles — including Newton's part in it — in 2016. And of course I've studied him when he's played the Patriots.
There's a lot to like there and for Josh McDaniels to work with. But for this to truly work, Newton's going to have to take hard coaching (there have been doubts how much he's received or taken in that area for many years) and tighten up his game.
These are the four not-so-obvious areas Newton will have to tighten up:
1. Play-action fakes.
To be blunt, Newton is one of the worst NFL quarterbacks when it comes to selling play-action fakes on a consistent basis. Are all of them terrible? No. Does his athletic ability almost act as a playfake by itself? Yes.
But some of his playfakes are a complete waste of time and actually hurt the play. This is something I wrote about in 2013:
I think Cam Newton is so bad at play-fakes that the Panthers shouldn’t even bother. Smart, veteran inside linebackers are going to easily read Newton and know what’s coming. In the Eagles-Panthers game last Thursday, Philadelphia inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans was dropping into coverage before Newton even finished the fake. It boggles the mind that someone—if Newton is listening—hasn’t told Newton, “You know what separates the best quarterbacks in the game? The little things, like play-fakes. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees—go down the list of elite quarterbacks—are the best play-fakers in the game. Do you sense a trend there?” Newton is tremendously talented, but you have to do everything well to rise in this league. With the Panthers reemphasizing the traditional running game, it becomes even more important for Newton to do his part from under center.
Newton's PFF play-action passer rating:
2018: 3rd (Norv Turner)
2017: 16th out of 26
2016: 24th out of 27
2015: 10th out of 27
2014: 16th out of 25
This is something Newton was able to get away with in Carolina — and even when he was good in 2018 (third with Norv Turner), the Panthers were actually 24th in DVOA difference between playaction and non-playaction passes in 2018, so not that great — but he will not in New England.
In fact, it could determine whether he lands or keeps the starting spot.