As expected, Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton has declared for the 2011 NFL draft. The "will he stay or will he go" question never seemed to be a huge mystery. It would have been a huge upset had he chosen to stay in school based on his Heisman Trophy season and national title.
Several NFL personnel sources have told FOXSports.com that Newton is a sure-fire first-round pick, and that he definitely projects as a quarterback at the next level. But how high he’ll go off the board will be determined by how well he works out and interviews for teams over the coming weeks and months.
Certainly he will be this year’s Tim Tebow in regards to the hype and hysteria before April’s draft. Here’s a breakdown of what decisions and events await Newton in the pre-draft run-up:
DO NOT OPEN UNTIL: FEBRUARY
Because he’s just a college junior, front-office personnel and scouts from the NFL won’t get their first look at the strong-armed passer until late February’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
All of the other top senior quarterbacks will participate in the Senior Bowl or East-West Shrine Game later this month. Current NFL coaches run the Senior Bowl (this year’s group is made up of coaches from the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills), so Newton won’t get that head-start opportunity which the top senior QBs such as Jake Locker and Andy Dalton will receive to get their feet wet in pro-style offenses. And the East-West game is generally run by ex-NFL head coaches, who are either retired or who have been out of the game for a bit.
THE COMBINE: POKING AND PRODDING
Teams who are interested in Newton — and there are a lot of teams looking for a franchise quarterback in this year’s draft — will get a chance to talk to him during their allotted 15 minutes of face-to-face interview time during the Combine. Each team gets the chance to interview up to 60 players.
Newton’s eventual agent will not be with him during that time. You can be sure teams who talk to him will want to know whether he’s the next JaMarcus Russell, Ryan Leaf or instead the next Josh Freeman. They will test his character, football intelligence and love for the game.
The interviews have become especially important for QB prospects. The one thing personnel sources said about talking to Russell before the 2007 NFL draft was that he didn’t have the passion to learn and excel, instead relying solely on his outstanding arm strength. Russell’s notorious flameout with the Oakland Raiders — despite his mega-million-dollar rookie contract — has given teams even more reason to pause before selecting a passer high in the first round.
TO WORK OUT OR NOT — THAT IS THE QUESTION
Newton’s agent will have to help him make the decision whether or not to work out for interested teams. Back in 2008, former Boston College QB Matt Ryan was criticized for not throwing during the Combine. But Ryan worked out at his Pro Day, giving personnel evaluators a chance to see his throwing mechanics and arm strength up close.
While Pro Day workouts are generally in a controlled setting, team still place great value on these workouts — even without Combine workouts. Ryan did not drop at all in the draft that spring — with the Atlanta Falcons grabbing him with the No. 3 overall pick that April, a decision nobody in Atlanta will ever regret.
THE $50 MILLION QUESTION: WHICH TEAMS NEED A QB?
Once teams have finalized his draft grade after the Combine, Pro Day and private workouts and visits, it will be a matter of pulling the trigger on draft day.
Which teams could have an interest in him, especially in Round 1? Here are the teams that need a young quarterback:
Arizona Cardinals — The Cardinals own the No. 5 selection overall, which may be a little too high to take Newton off the board. The team has to decide whether John Skelton is worth developing as the future at quarterback.
Buffalo Bills — It appears that head coach Chan Gailey is set with journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick as his starter for at least next season. But Fitzpatrick still has a lot to prove. If not Fitzpatrick, the team does not have its long-term answer at the position.
Carolina Panthers — The Panthers own the top overall selection in the draft, so selecting Newton wouldn’t be a very good value at this point. But the Panthers must decide soon whether the future at quarterback is Jimmy Clausen or someone else.
Cleveland Browns — The Browns will move to a West Coast offense next season, and that scheme is a perfect fit for incumbent Colt McCoy. So selecting Newton at No. 6 overall may not make a lot of sense.
Jacksonville Jaguars — While starting quarterback David Garrard is signed through 2014, he’s set to earn nearly $8 million in base salary next season. Owner Wayne Weaver said recently that the team needs to develop a younger quarterback for the future.
Minnesota Vikings — Former head coach Brad Childress selected Tarvaris Jackson in the 2006 NFL draft as his developmental QB. After five seasons and with Childress no longer in Minnesota, it’s clear that Jackson isn’t the future at the position.
Oakland Raiders — They really need to develop a young quarterback, but the Raiders don’t own a first-round pick in 2011, so they will be out of the Newton sweepstakes barring a trade up into the first round.
San Francisco 49ers — It’s about time they figured out their quarterback situation, and president and CEO Jed York seems to want to make a big splash.
Seattle Seahawks — Of the three quarterbacks on their 53-man roster, only Charlie Whitehurst is signed through next season, but it doesn’t appear that the team is enamored with him. The Seahawks were very interested in Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb during free agency last year, but the Eagles had no interest in moving him at the time.
Tennessee Titans — Once Vince Young is cut (no team would trade for him based on the money he’s owed in 2011), the Titans will be without a future starting quarterback.
Washington Redskins — Head coach Mike Shanahan has done a good job of developing quarterbacks over the years, so he could choose to take a shot with Newton, since it’s clear Donovan McNabb isn’t the future at the position for the team.