Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome former NFL MVP Cam Newton to the AFC East. While exactly none of us would have predicted that week one of the NFL season could feature a Tua Tagovailoa vs. Cam Newton matchup, that possibility is now on the table with Cam Newton having signed an incentive-rich, one-year, $1.05 million deal with the New England Patriots. It’s been five years since Newton’s 2015 MVP campaign and there are questions about how much tread he has left on the tires after suffering his fair share of injuries thanks to his playstyle, but the natural ability is there, and Josh McDaniels may be the person to get the most out of Newton at this point in his career. With this in mind, let’s jump into what the starting quarterback picture looks like throughout the Dolphins’ division and the AFC East quarterback roundup.
New England Patriots: Let’s start off where we’re already at because this is where things get interesting. Despite news just recently breaking that Cam Newton’s contract is worth up to $7.5 million in incentives despite the criminally low guaranteed salary, an unnamed AFC East coach said this week that “I actually don’t see him starting week one in the offense… I know one thing for a fact: The Patriots love Jarrett Stidham.” While it would be at least mildly surprising if Newton didn’t win the job and start in the season opener, it’s difficult to nail down a safe prediction with Bill Belichick calling the shots. Stidham was a fourth-round pick last year and threw only four passes all season, but in the preseason managed to rack up four touchdowns, 731 yards, and a passer rating of 102.6 with only one interception. This impressive stat line, albeit one achieved during the exhibition season, could explain the Patriots’ supposed level of confidence in the young QB. If the Patriots were completely sold they likely wouldn’t have signed Newton, but the contract was so cheap that they didn’t have much to lose (for reference, Stidham and other quarterbacks like Josh Dobbs and Blaine Gabbert of all people are making more in 2020 than Newton — it’s a crazy time we’re living in).
Newton missed almost all of last season with a foot injury, and in 2018 suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery and ended his season prematurely. The biggest issues with Newton are how long it’s been since his 2015 season plus concerns over his longevity after two seasons in a row have ended with injuries, but particularly with the shoulder because early in the 2019 season he simply didn’t look like himself throwing the football. He’s still a massive body at the quarterback position with talent and he landed in at least a decent spot, so Newton will have a chance to recapture some of his past magic. I doubt we’ll see anything close to 2015 Cam Newton, but his addition to the Patriots will likely make Stidham better through competition and certainly makes the AFC East more intriguing moving forward.
Buffalo Bills: Compared to any other team in the division, the Bills arguably have the most certainty at the QB position. While Josh Allen is certainly not without his warts (most notably his at-times atrocious mid to long-range accuracy), the Dolphins will be juggling Tua and Fitzpatrick, the Patriots can’t be sure what Cam Newton has left, and the Jets have to hope Sam Darnold rises to the challenge of his third year. Last season Josh Allen ranked 30th out of 37th eligible QBs on PFF with an overall grade of 64.1, just barely edging out Darnold but falling well short of Fitzpatrick. Despite the underwhelming PFF grade, Allen did lead a Bills squad with a strong defense to the playoffs before just barely facing an early exit thanks to Deshaun Watson’s superhuman effort on this play.
A key element of Allen’s game that has severely hurt the Dolphins in recent memory is his ability to create opportunities with his legs. Allen surprised teams on the ground last season to the tune of 510 yards and a whopping nine touchdowns. Much like Sam Darnold his status as a fully-fledged franchise quarterback isn’t yet assured, but Allen’s playoff appearance and obvious improvement in year two certainly help his case moving forward — even with the hiccups in his game, Allen has shown that the Bills can win with him. Whether or not he can improve on his accuracy, in general, will be the biggest test of his ability and continued growth.
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Miami Dolphins: As it stands right now, the Dolphins may have the best quarterback in the AFC East with Ryan Fitzpatrick. Moving forward this fact depends on Fitz not showing his age early in the coming season and Tua not leapfrogging him for the starting job, but if last season is any indication the Dolphins are just fine rolling with Fitzmagic under center for a bit longer. Fitzpatrick ranked 14th out of 37 eligible QBs with an overall PFF grade of 76.5, a highly respectable mark given the presence of five turnstiles blocking (but not really) for him each week and a nonexistent ground attack. What’s more, is that his grade of 76.5 places him well above both Sam Darnold and Josh Allen.
Fitz showed plenty of his trademark veteran moxie and infectious swagger last year, and also surprised us all by getting it done on the ground and ending up at Miami’s leading rusher. Granted if you’re thinking that this was possible because all of the Dolphins’ running backs were either terrible at football (Kalen Ballage), suspended (Mark Walton), or fourth-stringers thrust into action (Patrick Laird), you’d be right. Still, watching Fitz rumble and stumble into the endzone four times last season was amazing to watch. The biggest variable in the Dolphins QB room is, of course, rookie Tua Tagovailoa and when he sees his first NFL action after recovering from a serious hip injury. My money is on Tagovailoa immediately blossoming as a competitive quarterback in the AFC East and eventually beyond once he starts, but time will tell. Check out my previous article for more on that.
New York Jets: Ah yes, good ol’ “Broadway Sam,” as the New York media called him after his very first game as a Jet a few seasons back (let’s not forget that his first-ever pass in the NFL was a pick-six in that game). With the 2020 season set to be Sam Darnold’s third as an NFL starter, it’s put up for shut up time for the USC product. Darnold has shown enough promise to keep Jets fans excited for the future and hoping that he can be the franchise quarterback they’ve needed since the butt fumble spelled the beginning of the end for the Mark Sanchez era, but his middling career stat line of 36 touchdowns to 28 interceptions casts doubt over his long term prospects.
Last season Darnold ranked 31st out of 37 quarterbacks on PFF with a subpar grade of 63.2, though he wasn’t helped by his bout with mono and Le’Veon Bell underwhelming in his first season as a part of Adam Gase’s offense. On the plus side for the Jets, he led the team to a 6-2 finish where he threw for 13 touchdowns with only 4 interceptions while showcasing the talent he has teased Jets fans with over the past two years. Whether Darnold rises to the challenge of being a franchise quarterback or not, the Jets’ quarterback situation in the AFC East will become more clear very soon.