New England Patriots release Cam Newton; Mac Jones to start at QB

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In a stunning move, the New England Patriots released veteran quarterback Cam Newton on Tuesday, turning things over to rookie Mac Jones as the starter.

Coach Bill Belichick had said repeatedly that Newton was the team's starting quarterback, but that he had to reestablish that position, or someone would have to play better than him. Jones has done that, in Belichick's view.

Jones finished the preseason 36-of-52 for 389 yards, with one touchdown and no interceptions, playing 107 snaps, easily the highest total among Patriots quarterbacks.

Newton had started every preseason game but didn't play as much overall (39 snaps). He finished the preseason 14-of-21 for 162 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.

In releasing Newton, who was a team captain, it clears a path for Jones to grow into more of a leadership role without having the presence of the former NFL Most Valuable Player behind him. Veteran Brian Hoyer, who was released Tuesday in a procedural move but expected to re-sign in the coming days, is projected to serve as Jones' primary backup, and the team has 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham on the physically unable to perform list as a possible option later in the season.

Early Tuesday morning, Belichick said Newton had been heading in the "right direction" when asked about his preseason and training camp. That added to the surprise of Newton's release.

After news of his release came out, Newton posted on his Instagram account: "I really appreciate all the love and support during this time but I must say ... please don't feel sorry for me. I'm good."

Belichick had previously said he was looking for consistency and production over a period of time when evaluating quarterbacks -- which naturally included practice and games. One breakthrough for Jones came when Newton missed three practices because of a COVID-19 protocol "misunderstanding" last week, and Jones took over the team.

Jones was particularly impressive in one joint session with the New York Giants, continuing a theme of him running the traditional Patriots offense that includes empty formations, setting the offensive line protection at the line of scrimmage and checking out of plays when the situation called for it. Jones had said he felt like he was in a "game flow" that day.

On Sunday night, after the preseason finale, Jones said he was preparing as the starter but was ready for all possibilities. "I'm here to play any role I can play, help in any way I can, and I'm going to be ready whenever my time comes," he said.

Jones has quickly earned respect from teammates, with veteran offensive tackle Trent Brown previously saying, "I think he can be special. To be so young, I think he makes some throws that not a lot of young guys can make."

Longtime captain Matthew Slater, the longest-tenured Patriot, previously said: "I think he's a great young man. Character really counts when you talk about what we do off the football field, the way we carry ourselves. The way that he commands respect of even guys like myself, older guys that been here for a while, he's earned that respect by the way that he's gone about his craft."

The Patriots had re-signed Newton to a modest one-year deal in March that included $3.5 million in guaranteed money. Newton would have earned $5.1 million if he was healthy and on the roster as a backup, with incentives that upped the potential package to as much as $13.6 million if he was the starter and the team advanced into the playoffs.