Way back in 2011, or a lifetime ago as far as the National Football League is concerned, Cam Newton obliterated records upon his debut with the Carolina Panthers.
Newton threw for 422 yards for Carolina in Week 1, the most ever by a quarterback making his first start, some 76 yards more than previous record-holder Otto Graham for the Cleveland Browns 61 years earlier.
For an encore the following week? Newton outdid himself, amassing 432 yards through the air for a two-game total of 854 – the most ever for a quarterback through two starts.
Newton did this, mind you, without a full off-season to prepare thanks to an owners’ lockout which lasted right up until training camp.
Amazingly, Newton hasn’t topped 400 yards passing in a single game since... but his 397 yards in New England’s 35-30 loss in Seattle on Sunday were the closest he’s come. Combine Newton’s aerial assault with his rushing prowess through two weeks – he’s tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns, with four, and second in rushing yards among quarterbacks – 2020 is arguably the best two-game start to a season for Newton in his 10-year career.
Remember, Newton didn’t even sign with the Patriots until late June in what was the strangest off-season in NFL history, exponentially more challenging than the difficulties from 2011.
Add it all up, and the calculus on New England’s ceiling in 2020 has suddenly skyrocketed upwards.
Newton has squashed any and all questions about his physical abilities being on the decline. There’s still the matter of whether or not he can stay healthy, which shouldn’t be taken for granted in the wake of the carnage across the league last week, but it’s never been clearer that the Patriots won’t be entering your typical rebuilding mode following the departure of Tom Brady.
Two weeks in, it’s incredible to think that quarterback was a legitimate concern for New England heading into the season. Is the rest of the roster up to snuff?
Thanks in large part to Newton’s one-year prove-it deal paying him $1.05 million – the 51st-highest quarterback salary in the NFL in 2020 – the Patriots are flush with cap space. New England checks in with just under $25 million at the moment, good enough for the fifth-most in the NFL.
The cap is sure to fluctuate over the next several seasons as the long-term effects of the pandemic potentially hinder the NFL’s bottom line ever so slightly, but the Patriots currently rank among the top four teams in the league in projected cap space through 2024.
Newton could very well earn himself an extension in New England – stay tuned over the coming weeks and months on that – but that shouldn’t preclude the Patriots from improving the rest of their roster, which is depleted in several notable areas.
Once again, New England is paper-thin at wide receiver and tight end. It hasn’t hindered Newton yet, but Patriots tight ends rank 30th in the NFL in receiving yards through two weeks, with Ryan Izzo still the only player at the position to catch a pass. Rookie Devin Asiasi has played 10 snaps in each of the team’s first two games, while Dalton Keene is yet to see the field due to injury (quick aside: Rob Gronkowski has two catches for 11 yards thus far in Tampa. He’s done.)
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It’s by no means time to start worrying about Asiasi’s lack of production or Keene’s injuries, but the next several weeks will be telling in terms of what we can realistically expect from them for the balance of 2020. Give Izzo credit, too – he’s improved immensely since the start of last season – but can he be trusted as a bona fide No. 1 tight end?
Pickings are slim on the free-agent market at the position, but it’s only a matter of time before some of the teams that have already started 0-2 begin to pack it in and sell off pieces. Bill Belichick and Co. need to do their due diligence on any tight ends that become available.
Receiver, oddly enough, may not be quite as pressing given Newton’s growing confidence in N’Keal Harry and Damiere Byrd to go along with Julian Edelman.
“The answer’s in the locker room,” Newton said earlier this week on WEEI when asked about the group. Gunner Olszewski, who flashed in training camp, could be on his way back for Week 4, when he’s due to come off injured reserve, while Jakobi Meyers still lurks as a depth option.
Following the disastrous results of trading a second-round pick for Mohamed Sanu last season, New England can’t be nearly as gung-ho when it comes to working the receivers’ market. With placating Brady no longer a need, however, taking a flyer on an under-the-radar receiver at the cost of a late-round draft pick makes all the sense in the world for the Patriots.
This leaves us with a position Newton has no bearing on: linebacker.
Through two games, New England checks in a very respectable 11th in yards allowed with 698, tied with Brady’s Bucs. Last week’s game in Seattle, however, should serve as a stark warning of what an even average offense can do to the Patriots: run the ball successfully to set up big pass plays.
The Seahawks gashed the Patriots for 154 yards on the ground on 30 carries, but only quarterback Russell Wilson ripped off a single gain of more than 20 yards. It was death by a thousand paper cuts for a New England defense that only sacked Wilson twice and through two games has just three sacks.
Wilson threw for five touchdown passes Sunday, an aberration to be sure against a secondary which is as talented as any in the game. The entire front seven for the Patriots, on the other hand, is weaker than it’s been in quite some time.
Not that we’re clamoring for the return of the paper tiger boogiemen, but still. Like at tight end, New England is relying on a pair of rookies in Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche to overhaul the position, and through two weeks, the results aren’t much better.
Jennings had his moments in the opener against Miami, sure, but played a mere two snaps against Seattle. Uche, meanwhile, is still yet to see the field for the Patriots.
Thanks to the timing of its bye (Week 6), New England has only five games remaining before the league’s trade deadline on Nov. 3. The uncertainty which continues amid the pandemic remains a concern, naturally, but the NFL has gone off nearly flawlessly thus far despite its lack of a bubble.
Circumstances can change in a hurry, but the 2020 season doesn’t appear to be in any danger of being shut down at this time.
Were Brady still here, the Patriots would undoubtedly be seeking to upgrade their roster. It’s early, but the Cam Newton era appears worthy of a similar investment with designs on playing into January and beyond.
Who knows, things in the world could even be creeping back towards relative normalcy by then. And nothing would be more normal than a Patriots team emerging as a Super Bowl contender.