Remember all those mildly famous pictures of Bill Belichick from years past enjoying destination vacations during the dawning moments of NFL free agency? While remote working is all the rage here in 2021, it appears he’s operating from a different setting as the market inches open.
Last week, the Patriots secured an option at the quarterback position by signing Cam Newton to an incentive-heavy one-year contract. He’ll get $5.1 million if he’s on the Week 1 roster but has to have a wild season and lead the Patriots to the playoffs in order to approach the $13.6 million value. All of that seems unlikely but if it did happen, that price tag would be a bargain for a high-quality starting quarterback.
In plain terms: Cam Newton’s deal is the picture-perfect textbook definition of a team-friendly contract.
It makes all the sense in the world for these two to run it back in 2021. Newton probably didn’t have a better option in terms of finding a path to a starting job. New England had zero viable alternatives in-house and wasn’t likely to be an appealing destination for the Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jameis Winston tier of free-agent passers. Expect the Patriots to make another move at quarterback, likely via the NFL draft to give them a better fallback plan if/when Newton begins to break down, something they sorely lacked in 2020.
With the building blocks of a plan in place at quarterback, the next logical move was to start putting together an infrastructure to make anyone behind center’s life easier than the unmitigated nightmare Newton lived through last year.
Apparently, the Patriots’ No. 1 target among all available pass-catchers was tight end Jonnu Smith. It showed.
Belichick and Co. wasted virtually 0.0 minutes into the legal tampering window to ink Smith to a bulbous four-year, $50 million deal with $31.3 million guaranteed. Smith’s new $12.5 million average per year salary puts him just behind Travis Kelce and George Kittle among tight ends.
That might seem aggressive but I think Smith is the ideal second-contract signing for an NFL team. You want to pay for future potential and get guys on the upswing of their careers, not once-great players aging out of their apex. There’s every reason to believe Smith is on that upswing.
Smith has flashed truly special ability as a receiving tight end and has a proven pedigree as a touchdown scorer. He drew 27 percent of the Titans red-zone targets last year and found the end zone eight times. Overall Smith never finished in the 15 to 20 percent target share range for the Titans, but he’s a stone-cold lock to hit that kind of usage mark with New England given the state of their wide receiver corps. Of course, more moves are likely coming there.
One of Smith’s biggest strengths will be a huge boost to Newton and the entire Patriots’ offense. You look at that 2020 New England skill-position roster and it’s clear they completely lacked someone who could create with the ball in their hands on layup targets after Julian Edelman went down. As Next Gen Stats shows, that’s Smith’s specialty:
Just because Newton once had great success with Greg Olsen doesn’t immediately guarantee Smith and he will click. It doesn’t work like that. But Newton learned to lean on Olsen in Carolina because he stood out among their pass-catchers as an explosive tight end entering his prime who could get open over the middle of the field and do something with the ball after the catch. Smith stands out in the exact same way among the Patriots’ current receivers.
For fantasy football, you don’t want to go wild with your expectations for Smith. However, given the state of the tight end position after the consensus top-four players (Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Darren Waller, Mark Andrews) and his realistic path to push for 80 targets combined with his own tantalizing skill-set, it’s worth getting excited. I could see Smith settling into the TE6 to TE9 range by the time we’re drafting in August.
The Patriots weren't done after landing Smith. In addition to adding some more defensive players to the mix, they also brought in a pair of wide receivers. Nelson Agholor was signed to a two-year deal and former 49ers receiver Kendrick Bourne to a three-year contract.
The Raiders completely changed Agholor's role last year by making him their chief vertical receiver. His 15.1 average depth of target was by far the highest mark of his career. If Newton has any juice left in his arm, he just got an underrated downfield threat. Bourne is less of a known quantity but did flash some potential when called upon as an injury replacement for San Francisco.
It didn't come via the most jaw-dropping big names but the Patriots quietly just remade an offense that desperately needed a facelift. There could be some potential fantasy value in New England this coming season. That's at least saying something after this was a total wasteland in 2020.