Cam Newton should be 49ers starting QB in 2021, not Jimmy Garoppolo

Marc Delucchi
·6 min read

The San Francisco 49ers’ search for certainty at quarterback remains ongoing. After another disappointing season with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback, the rumors are swirling. The Niners were reportedly heavily involved in trade talks for former Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and are one of many teams hoping to acquire Deshaun Watson from the Houston Texans.

Barring a significant shift, though, it seems more likely that the 49ers’ only obvious route for another franchise quarterback is through the upcoming NFL Draft. In Mel Kiper Jr’s most recent mock draft for ESPN, he predicted the 49ers would trade up in the draft to land Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. Others have predicted a similar move for North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance.

Either way, the momentum seems to be moving away from the 49ers replacing Garoppolo. Even if the 49ers select a quarterback high in the draft, it seems most likely that the organization would retain Garoppolo and allow him to compete with whoever they chose, as suggested by Tim Kawakami of The Athletic.

The 49ers, led by head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, are intrigued by the prospect of upgrading under center, but it seems like they remain content running things back with Garoppolo. Assuming he’s unwilling to accept a pay cut, though, the 49ers’ brass should be strongly considering a run at New England Patriots free-agent quarterback Cam Newton.

Newton is far removed from his peak production with the Carolina Panthers. Still, it seems like many are focusing on how less effective Newton has been than his MVP season in 2015 and are ignoring his solid play. He missed nearly all of the 2019 season with injuries but returned to the field with the Patriots this year and performed well given the circumstances.

Both Newton and Garoppolo have struggled to stay on the field recently. However, their on-field performance, when healthy, has been far more similar than many might expect. Below are tables comparing their 16-game averages over the past three seasons.

Jimmy Garoppolo & Cam Newton’s Passing 16-Game Averages 2018-2020

Player

Comp

Att

Comp%

Yds

TD

Int (Int %)

Sacks-Yds

Newton

316

479

65.8%

3419

17

12 (2.6%)

34-233

Garoppolo

305

451

67.5%

3707

25

13 (3.0%)

38-263

Jimmy Garoppolo & Cam Newton’s Rushing 16-Game Averages 2018-2020

Player

Rush Att

Rush Yds

AVG

Rush TD

Fum

Newton

125

556

4.4

8

7

Garoppolo

41

77

1.9

1

10

Jimmy Garoppolo & Cam Newton’s Totals 16-Game Averages 2018-2020

Player

Comp%

Total Yds

Total TD

Int (Int%)

Sacks-Yds

Fum

CN

65.8%

3975

25

12 (2.6%)

34-233

7

JG

67.5%

3784

26

13 (3.0%)

38-263

10

Newton only amassed 8 touchdowns and 2,657 yards through the air in New England this season. However, he ran for nearly 600 yards and 12 additional scores. It’s easy to dismiss Newton because of his 8-10 touchdown to interception ratio in 2020, but it’s disingenuous when he ran for the fourth most touchdowns in the NFL to ignore the run game in comparisons.

The most impressive part of Newton’s performance has been his ability to avoid negative plays. Mobile quarterbacks are often more prone to fumbling and taking drive-killing sacks, but Newton has fumbled, thrown interceptions, and taken sacks at a lower rate than Garoppolo since 2018.

A cursory look at the comparison might raise questions about the types of throws each quarterback is making. Newton’s numbers might suggest he’s taking fewer chances than Garoppolo downfield. A deeper dive into the stats show that’s actually not the case.

Per Pro Football Focus’ passing direction charts, 36.4% of Newton’s throws since 2018 have traveled at least 10 yards downfield (9.2% have traveled at least 20 yards). Only 34.2% of Garoppolo’s passes have traveled at least 10 yards downfield over the same period (7.8% at least 20). Furthermore, on those throws, Newton has completed them more often (55.0% to 54.2%) and thrown interceptions at a noticeably lower rate (4.5% to 6.0%) than Garoppolo.

The context of these numbers matters too. While Newton had running back Christian McCaffrey and a rookie wide receiver D.J. Moore in 2018, his supporting cast this year in New England was highlighted by Damien Harris, Jakobi Meyers, and six games of Julian Edelman. Not only did Newton have to adjust to a new offensive system and coaching staff in New England, but he also had no above-average skill-position players around him.

Defensively, Garoppolo has had far more support than Newton too. Per Football Outsiders’ Defensive DVOA Rankings, the 49ers defenses since 2018 have ranked 24th, 2nd, and 6th in the NFL, while Newton’s teams have ranked 23rd, 26th, and 26th.

Health is another critical part of this discussion. It’s challenging to evaluate Garoppolo, at least in part, because he’s only been healthy for one full season. While Newton has seemingly been labeled “damaged goods” by much of the league, he’s missed just 19 games in the past decade. Garoppolo has missed 23 in the last three seasons alone.

Newton will turn 32 in May, and his advanced age may be a better predictor of his future status than his track-record of health. However, Garoppolo is slated to turn 30 in November. While Newton has played nearly three times more professional games than Garoppolo, they both are middle-aged NFL quarterbacks.

Yet, it’s not as simple as comparing Garoppolo and Newton statistically. The 49ers have to consider their respective price tags.

Fans who prefer Garoppolo have to ask themselves how much additional talent they would be willing to give up to retain him instead of targeting Newton.

If the 49ers could trade Garoppolo and recoup draft capital from a team like the Patriots or Chicago Bears, that would only further incentivize a swap. Ignoring the possibilities of a trade, though, just releasing him would save San Francisco $23.6 million in salary cap space.

PFF currently projects Newton to receive a one-year, $5 million contract through free agency. Per their predicted contracts, releasing Garoppolo, signing Newton, re-signing cornerback Jason Verrett, re-signing edge rusher Kerry Hyder, and adding All-Pro center Corey Linsley would cost the 49ers just $1.9 million more than keeping Garoppolo. If Newton required a one-year, $10 million deal, the 49ers could still retain Hyder and Verrett while adding veteran center Alex Mack for the same total cost.

There’s a reasonably strong argument that Newton is a better quarterback than Garoppolo right now. Newton has been healthier and avoided turnovers at a far better rate. While he may not have matched Garoppolo’s passing production in 2019 recently, his dynamic abilities as a runner more than makeup for that gap.

Yet, even the most fervent Garoppolo defenders have to consider the rest of the roster. Even if Garoppolo is a better quarterback than Newton, is he better enough to justify the millions of dollars in cap savings a switch would give the front office in free agency?

The 49ers should be pursuing potential upgrades at quarterback through the draft and trade market if a player like Dak Prescott or Deshaun Watson becomes available. However, even if they fail to land an elite option, it’s hard to justify Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract, especially when a similarly effective option like Cam Newton is available at potentially less than a quarter of the price.