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Evaluating next steps for the Patriots after re-signing Cam Newton

(AP Photo / Elise Amendola)

After an unimpressive first year with the New England Patriots in a season impacted by COVID-19, it looks like Cam Newton will be back under center in Foxborough when the 2021 season gets underway.

According to The Boston Globe’s Jim McBride, Newton and the Patriots agreed to a one-year deal to bring the former Carolina Panthers star back to New England for a second chance.

Per the NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo, the deal has a $5 million base value, with a $2 million signing, $1.5 million guaranteed in base salary, and $1.5 million total in per-game roster bonuses. There are $9 million in performance-based incentives, bringing the total potential value to $14 million.

Newton’s debut campaign with the Patriots wasn’t anything to write home about, as the former NFL MVP threw just eight touchdowns and tossed 10 interceptions throughout 15 starts in 2020.

>>FROM 2020: Patriots sign QB Cam Newton: Evaluating the low-risk, high-reward move

Newton’s play also left fans in New England clamoring for change, whether it was a tryout for then-second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham as the team’s starter, or a trade for a top-tier quarterback in the offseason that followed.

Alas, the first few weeks of the 2021 offseason came and went, and Bill Belichick and company hadn’t made the splash that some expected them to make ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft.

There wasn’t a trade for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (yet) to create a reunion with Garoppolo’s former head coach. Nor had there been a trade for a quarterback like new Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, new Indianapolis Colts quarterback Carson Wentz, or a superstar that may be on the block like Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

>>RELATED: Evaluating the QB market after Eagles trade Carson Wentz to Colts

Instead, the Patriots evaluated all of their options at the time, and decided to sign Cam Newton while they get all of their quarterback affairs in order.

It doesn’t lock in the idea that Newton would start when the 2021 season starts in September, nor does it even guarantee that Newton would be on the depth chart after training camp.

But, it gives the Patriots some stability (or the appearance of some stability) offensively as they look towards making big moves in free agency, and at least provides a Plan B if all else fails in the 2021 offseason.

So, where do the Patriots go from here, and what’s next for Bill Belichick and the franchise’s front office?

There are a lot of options at play and a long to-do list to work through if the team wants to return to the top of the AFC East in 2021, but here are a few of the most important items:

  • Draft a quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft

This one’s pretty simple. Cam Newton isn’t going to be the guy to get the Patriots to 11 or 12 wins in a 17-game 2021 season, which is probably the minimum amount of wins that New England would need to make a real run in the postseason.

Jarrett Stidham evidently isn’t going to be the guy that takes the reins under center in Bill Belichick’s offense, otherwise he would’ve stepped into the rotation a little more in 2020.

>>FROM 2020: ‘You’ve just got to keep it fun’: Cam Newton and the 2020 Patriots created a new ‘Patriot Way’

And, barring any blockbuster move with some of their draft capital, the Patriots likely aren’t going to make the splash that fans are hoping for in relation to Jimmy Garoppolo.

What the Patriots do have, however, is a nicely-positioned first-rounder in the 2021 NFL Draft, and one of the more solid quarterback classes in recent memory to work with.

Sure, they’re not going to be able to pick up a player like Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields, but they’ve reportedly been doing their due diligence on players like North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, Alabama’s Mac Jones and BYU’s Zach Wilson.

If the Patriots don’t find their true long-term option at quarterback via trade this offseason, drafting one of those top-tier incoming rookies and letting them marinate behind Newton seems like a must.

  • Sign or trade for a WR1

The Patriots are entering a new era in the franchise’s history, and the awkward transition was evident last year offensively.

Up-and-comers like running back Damien Harris and wide receiver Jakobi Meyers had impressive seasons in their second year in the league, and newcomer and then-27-year-old Damiere Byrd became a top target for Cam Newton.

But, the team was forced to deal with a shortened season for top wideout Julian Edelman, and a lackluster second year from N’Keal Harry, as well.

While the running game had its strong points, it’s clear the Patriots’ passing game wasn’t up to par in 2021, evident by Newton’s 2,657 passing yards and eight passing touchdowns.

At the same time, while Newton’s running game was powerful in its own right, even that took a hit towards the latter half of the year when teams were able to commit to it and create more pressure on the Patriots’ offensive line.

So, the Patriots need to make some changes as far as targets are concerned. Whether it’s through free agency or via trade, the franchise needs to build for life after Edelman, and give Newton some weapons to help guys like Meyers get open.

>>RELATED: New England Patriots All-Time Draft: Team reporters, NFL writers take their pick of historic Pats players

Former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster stands out as the wide receiver to watch in free agency, along with former Houston Texans wide receiver Will Fuller. Former Detroit Lions wide receiver Kenny Golladay is also an option, but the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants seem like they could be frontrunners in that race.

Another player to look out for is Chicago Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson, who recently received the franchise tag for the 2021 season. If the Patriots wanted to pull off a tag-and-trade with the Bears, that would surely be a worthwhile investment.

One other potential trade target? Houston Texans wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who just restructured his deal amid the drama surrounding quarterback Deshaun Watson. If the Texans decide to blow it all up and go for a full rebuild in 2021, a return to New England could be a great follow-up situation for the former Patriots wide receiver.

There’s a ton of top-tier talent out there, but none of them seem to be commuting to Foxborough every week from September to January. If the Patriots want to contend, that needs to change.

  • Establish offensive line

The Patriots’ offensive line has been hit-or-miss in recent years, but they had arguably the best line in the league when former offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia was at the helm.

While dealing with opt-outs and injuries last season, the Patriots’ line faltered in 2020, and didn’t do Cam Newton any favors when it came time to drop back and pass in clutch situations.

Luckily, the team found itself a hidden gem in Michael Onwenu, a guard who stepped up in a big way in his rookie season.

>>RELATED: There’s still plenty for the Patriots to be excited about despite poor 2020 record

The franchise also made a large step (both figuratively and literally) in the right direction by pulling off a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders to bring 27-year-old tackle Trent Brown back to New England after a brief stint away from the team.

Now, it’s just about finalizing all of the puzzle pieces and building something perfect to help both Newton in the passing game, and the Patriots’ rising rushing game, as well.

Long-time Patriots guard Joe Thuney didn’t get the franchise tag, and is likely heading elsewhere in free agency. Mainstay Patriots center David Andrews may be leaving New England in free agency, as well, which would leave a big hole to fill in the middle of the offensive line.

But, the team will reportedly get Marcus Cannon back after the tackle opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19, and also still has a decision to make regarding young tackle Isaiah Wynn.

There will certainly be loads of talent on the Patriots’ offensive line when the season kicks off in September. It’s just a matter of getting things in order quickly and potentially shuffling pieces around to utilize all of the team’s best linemen, regardless of their natural position.

  • Evaluate Stephon Gilmore situation

This part of the offseason isn’t specifically related to the offense, but it will have major implications on what the team does offensively in 2021.

While the Patriots haven’t been lucky when it comes to drafting and signing wide receivers, they tend to hit the jackpot in the team’s secondary, specifically at cornerback.

Look no further than the team’s signing of Stephon Gilmore in 2017, and their ability to build up players like J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones.

>>RELATED: Patriots CB Jonathan Jones continues to move forward, both on the field and with Next Step Foundation

Unfortunately, when so much talent continues to come through, those at the top tend to get the short end of the stick.

In this case, it appears as if Gilmore may not be sticking around in New England much longer after the 2021 season ends and his contract runs out.

So, if the Patriots want to build towards the future of the franchise, they need to be able to part with their present and get the best value in return.

Ahead of an important 2021 season, the Patriots may need to do just that with Gilmore, and ship the star cornerback elsewhere (likely to the NFC) to improve their future.

If they’re able to find a trading partner for Gilmore, potentially like the San Francisco 49ers, they may be able to land solid draft capital in return, or could even work Gilmore into a deal for a star quarterback like Jimmy Garoppolo.

Regardless, the Patriots need to know what’s next on that front so they can start to plan for long-term deals for current Patriots like Jackson, players who are potentially on the way out like Joe Thuney and David Andrews, or even new faces in free agency.

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