The door to the AFC East was supposed to be wide open for the first time in two decades. The Buffalo Bills were even favored to win it. The Jets seemed to have a legitimate shot, too. And everyone was delighting in the prospect of the Patriots having to suffer through a rebuilding.
"We should've known better," said one scout for an AFC team. "Bill always has something up his sleeve."
Bill Belichick did indeed, and he pulled it out on Sunday night when the Patriots signed three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Cam Newton -- a 31-year-old star who spent nearly three months on the free-agent market as lesser quarterbacks were signed all around him. It was rumored for months that Newton was going to sign with New England to replace the departed Tom Brady. It always figured that a 68-year-old Belichick wasn't going to trust his legacy to Jarrett Stidham, a 23-year-old, first-year starter.
So when it happened, it wasn't necessarily surprising, but it still shook up a division that was hoping the balance of power would not be restored.
"If Newton is healthy, he's the best quarterback in that division," said the scout. "And now you could say the Patriots are the best team. They would've been the favorite if Brady had come back, right? Well, maybe Cam isn't Brady, but he's as close as they were ever going to find."
There are enough questions about Newton, though, that the scout would not completely shut the door on the Buffalo Bills or the Jets yet. The big one, of course, is Newton's health. His 2019 season was ruined by a Lisfranc injury, and his recovery won't be clear until he can get back on a field again. He had a shoulder injury through much of 2018 too, though he was still on pace to throw for nearly 4,000 yards before he was shut down.
If he's healthy, Newton is capable of 3,800 passing yards and 600 rushing yards, maybe more. Neither Jets quarterback Sam Darnold nor Bills quarterback Josh Allen have approached numbers like that.
"I'm curious to see if he can still run -- and will still run -- like he used to," the scout said. "He had a serious foot injury. It probably won't impact him like it would if he was a receiver, but until we see him, you just don't know."
Even if he is healthy, there still is a chance the AFC East could be more competitive than it usually is. The scout, like many, is high on Allen and Darnold and believes both of them have a chance to be elite NFL quarterbacks. He thinks Darnold, in particular, could eventually battle Newton to become the best quarterback in the division.
Allen, though, plays for the better team.
"The Bills are for real," the scout said. "They've got one of the best defenses in the league. They added some weapons for Allen. He's got to take a big step forward this season, but if he does they could be right there (with New England)."
It's the Jets, though, that could suffer the most. A difficult schedule becomes even tougher now that they'll have to deal with Newton twice. And they've moved from probably the second-best team in the AFC East to, more likely, third.
"Bills vs. Patriots could actually be a good division race now with Cam up there," the scout said. "The Jets will be better, but they're not up there with those two teams yet. Their best bet will probably be the wild card, but in a division that's all of a sudden much better, even that could be tough."