Just when it seemed believable the New England Patriots were content moving forward with Jarrett Stidham …
Just when it seemed like the AFC East might be open for the taking by the Jets, Miami Dolphins or Buffalo Bills …
Just when it seemed like Cam Newton was destined to be the NFL’s most accomplished backup quarterback in 2020 …
The Patriots and Newton agreed to terms pending a physical on a one-year contract that shakes up the NFL one month before training camps open. The incentive-laden contract is worth up to $7.5 million after recent negotiations that took place “quietly,” according to NFL Network.
“I’m excited as I don’t know what right now,” Newton wrote on Instagram. “All praise to God. … I hope you’re ready. #LETSgoPATS.”
The Newton-Patriots pairing made sense since the start of free agency in mid-March, when two surprising moves happened: Tom Brady left the Patriots for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Carolina Panthers cut Newton and replaced him with journeyman Teddy Bridgewater.
But both sides displayed patience: Newton, 31, did not settle for a certain backup job — like Jameis Winston did with the New Orleans Saints — and the Patriots did not overreact to Brady leaving or use a premium 2020 draft pick on a quarterback.
The timing of the agreement is hardly a coincidence: Minutes after Newton’s deal was revealed by ESPN, the NFL imposed penalties on the Patriots for Spygate II — illegally filming the Cincinnati Bengals sideline during a December game — that included a $1.1 million fine and loss of a third-round draft pick in 2021.
The Patriots said all the right things about their commitment to the second-year Stidham and surely they will pay lip service to an open competition in training camp between Stidham, Newton and veteran backup Brian Hoyer.
But 68-year-old Bill Belichick — the NFL’s second-oldest head coach — isn’t looking for a long rebuild after winning six Super Bowls in nine appearances during his first 21 seasons leading the Patriots. Newton gives him a win-now option if his surgically repaired right shoulder is healthy.
That is a big if, however.
The 2015 NFL MVP is 23-23 as a starter over the past four seasons and played in two games last season. He has started all 16 games just twice since 2014, as knee and foot injuries also derailed his career.
Only a handful of teams, including the Patriots, will enter training camp with competitions atop the quarterback depth chart, which prolonged Newton’s search in free agency. So did Newton’s inability to visit team facilities and undergo uncertainty-easing medical exams due to the closures caused by the coronavirus.
Newton’s deal is the first major shoe to drop during the normally quiet period of an NFL offseason. But not the last.
Other top free agents like pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney and cornerback Logan Ryan still need to find homes. And quarterback Colin Kaepernick might get a second chance from some team now that the NFL is more open to his racial justice kneeling protests during the national anthem.
A league source told The Post the Patriots remain high on Stidham, 23, as a possible long-term answer at the position. The fourth-round pick threw only four passes as a rookie.
Newton’s addition improves the Patriots’ chances of winning a 12th straight division title. Especially if he can continue to be a power runner, giving the creative combination of Belichick and Josh McDaniels a chance to further open the playbook.
As running back Frank Gore, who played for the Dolphins in 2018, Bills in 2019 and now is with the Jets, said recently, the Patriots losing Brady left the division “wide open.”
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