Newton's rise is tough to explain

BY foxsports • April 15, 2011

The Carolina Panthers are looking for a franchise quarterback — or at least they aren’t denying that they are.

The Panthers might have thought they had one in Jimmy Clausen last year, but their public affection for former Auburn University quarterback Cam Newton could suggest otherwise.

Despite some harsh comments from various NFL draft analysts in recent weeks, Newton’s draft value seems to have stabilized — or has it?

Demand Outpaces Supply

There has been speculation in recent weeks that there could be seven quarterbacks who will be selected within the first 45 picks. That could explain why it seems unlikely Newton will drop very far if the Panthers pass on him.

The reason?

There simply are not enough good, young quarterbacks currently in the NFL to develop.

“If you have your eye on one, you won’t be able to wait until the next round to get him. And you can’t really count on trading up,” a high-ranking NFC personnel executive told FOXSports.com. “So, if you have your eye on a quarterback, you better go get him with that pick and not screw around, especially because the draft is before free agency and you really don’t know your other options at this point. It’s a bit different this year.”

But it’s not just the quarterback position that lacks available top-end talent.

“I think Cam Newton is apt to be pushed up the draft this year because we’re lacking in a lot of the blue-chip guys,” former NFL head coach and current NFL on FOX analyst Brian Billick said. “This is as small as a blue-chip class as I can recall. I think (Patrick) Peterson, I think Von Miller and (Marcell) Dareus are blue-chip players. They are not once-in-a-generation Pro Bowl players, but I think they are pretty darn good. After that, there are good players such as Prince Amukamara. You have (Anthony) Costanzo and some other players.”

There are simply some drafts where you have few other options at the top.

“It reminds me of the 2005 draft,” Billick explained. “It’s not that Alex Smith deserved to go No. 1 and I think (former San Francisco 49ers head coach) Mike Nolan would tell you this, not because the 49ers thought he was a can’t-miss player as much as when you look at all of the alternatives, that wasn’t a great year (for talent). Yeah, they needed a quarterback, but that as much as anything else pushed him up the board. I think that, as much as anything else, is pushing Cam Newton up. There are needs every year.”

Excitement Factor/Surprising Traits

Newton’s one-year statistics at Auburn were off the charts.

He threw for 30 touchdowns and ran for 20 more.

While Newton only threw the ball 16 more times than he ran it last season, it wasn’t as though he just decided to run on his own. Despite what some might have thought, having Newton run was actually the design of the plays.

“In that offense, those were called runs. He didn’t run on his own,” NFL Films’ Greg Cosell told FOXSports.com. “When the pocket got a little muddied, and it’s an absolute positive, he didn’t run. He did not break down and was very comfortable. There were many times when there were bodies around him and he stood there and threw it. That’s a definite positive at the next level.”

While Newton is considered to be a raw talent, he has traits that translate well to the NFL, according to Cosell.

“I think he has potential because he has a hose for an arm. There’s no question that he can make every throw. But I think he lacks a little touch at this point as well. And as I said before, he’s willing to stand in there. Not many young quarterbacks with such little experience are willing to do that.”

Inexperience

While there’s an excitement factor that comes along with Newton, NFL personnel evaluators know he only started one year at the Division-I level, so he has very little playing experience. And because he ran so much, he didn’t have to go through passing progressions like he’ll be asked to do at the NFL level. And while his statistics were great, he still missed on throws that he’ll have to make in the future.

“I think he has a long way to go. My biggest concern with him would be his erratic accuracy,” Cosell explained. “Many times, quarterbacks who are erratic with their accuracy have a hard time having that corrected. Even though he has some mechanical flaws that can be corrected, that doesn’t automatically translate into improved accuracy. Then we’re getting into the learning curve and how quickly he can assimilate information, which teams have to figure that out how much he can do because of the offense that he played in.”

Pressure to play right away

Years ago, teams would be willing to let the quarterback sit behind a veteran for a few seasons. For example, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers behind Brett Favre for three seasons.

Those days are over. There’s pressure not only to play the quarterback early on, but to show that the player is on the right path.

“Well, I think you feel the pressure to make the right decision on the quarterback to begin with,” another high-ranking executive said. “To make sure he’s making progress. I don’t think that there are many quarterbacks that are selected high that will sit their whole first year. When they come in and they are ready to go, it’s important that they get that confidence going. You don’t want to push them before they’re ready either, but if they can get some meaningful experience in that first year, that could go a long way.”

And surrounding Newton with a good nucleus around him will help.

“You want to protect him. Set him up for success as much as possible. When you look at Carolina, they have some good players on offense. Especially at running back and they can protect him with that offensive line. You’re setting him up for success that way. Maybe his situation could go a little quicker than other situations where you don’t have that foundation for him,” the executive added.

Spread offense vs. drop-back style

While teams in the NFL like quarterbacks who have good athleticism and mobility, it has become increasingly difficult to evaluate the position at the college level because most of them play in spread offenses. Newton played in a spread-option scheme at Auburn.

But to minimize the spread scheme at the NFL level wouldn’t be entirely correct.

“You watch the Super Bowl and you watch the way Aaron Rodgers played, you watch the way (Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback) Ben Roethlisberger (played). Yeah, they were under center. But also they were in shotgun an awful lot, too,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said during the recent NFL owners meetings. “As we look at this process, we're trying to sit there and go, 'Hey, he's in shotgun an awful lot.' You can sit there and do that with almost all the quarterbacks in the league. Talk about what Indianapolis does, and in some situations, what San Diego does. It's not like he's going to go from being in shotgun the majority of the time to now he's going to be under the center if there's 60 plays, he's under center 55 times. So that's kind of an unfair depiction of what these guys can and can't do.”

Risk vs. Reward

When you’re thinking about using a high draft pick on a quarterback who has little playing experience, there’s a tremendous risk associated with the selection. While Newton’s upside is clearly there, the downside is obvious.

“I certainly understand why everyone is in a fuss over him. There’s the ‘wow’ factor associated with this player,” said one veteran pro personnel chief who has studied projected first-round quarterbacks for many years. “But you had better have a good front office that understands what they’re getting. He’s a long way from being able to be the guy who you are going to build your offense around.”

And one thing is for sure, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone involved in NFL scouting who believes Newton will be ready to be the full-time starter in his first year.

“Again, it’s setting realistic expectations,” the pro personnel chief explained further. “If you are willing to be patient, and he’s willing to work hard at it, you could be looking at a pretty interesting player down the road. I think possibly a pretty good player. But if he doesn’t have a good support system in place, he could be a major failure. Look at the kid (JaMarcus Russell) who was with (the) Oakland (Raiders).”



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