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CHRIS DUFRESNE

As the NFL draft nears, opinions on Cam Newton are all over the map

Not everybody is sold on whether the Auburn quarterback, whose draft status seems to change daily, might be the top pick.

April 26, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • Will Cam Newton lead the team that drafts him to a Super Bowl title or will he turn into the latest draft dud?
Will Cam Newton lead the team that drafts him to a Super Bowl title or will… (Dave Martin / Associated…)

It's a good thing the quarterback experts are on edge this week because, frankly, they were getting cocky. The top picks in the last two National Football League drafts were Sam Bradford, to St. Louis, and Matthew Stafford, to Detroit.

That's pinning tails on two donkeys.

Mark Sanchez, the fifth overall pick in 2009, by the New York Jets, was a fastball right down Broadway. Josh Freeman, selected No. 17 the same year by Tampa Bay, already has passed for 35 touchdowns and 5,306 yards.

In 2008, Matt Ryan went to Atlanta No.3 overall and Baltimore ended up taking no flack for Joe Flacco at No. 18.

Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers, first-round choices by Pittsburgh (2004) and Green Bay (2005), have won Super Bowls.

Before that, only four first-round quarterback picks — Terry Bradshaw, Phil Simms, Jim McMahon and Troy Aikman — had won a Lombardi Trophy for the team that drafted them.

However, this week's annual NFL gathering in New York is back to a mystery meet.

Personnel directors and Pajama U. basement analysts could get their reputations bloodied over this year's crop of incoming quarterbacks. Washington's Jake Locker might have gone No. 1 had he entered the draft last year, but he has dropped who knows how far after returning for a senior year in which he led the Huskies to … a Holiday Bowl win.

Off-field concerns have turned Arkansas' Ryan Mallet into a draft-board yo-yo. What kind of a Ryan is he … Matt or Leaf?

"This is not easy," said ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr., who touted Locker as the top pick last year, but now projects him as a mid-to-late first-round pick. "This is a very difficult process, trying to figure out who can play and who can't play."

No quarterback in recent draft history has been as teasingly tantalizing as Auburn's Cam Newton, bee-lining toward becoming No. 1 overall and property of the Carolina Panthers despite lingering questions about his NFL readiness.

Newton's draft status since leading Auburn to the national championship in January seemed to change daily based on what he had for lunch. Yet, he has recently solidified into the consensus can't-resist choice based on … nobody is sure what.

Newton, 6 feet 6 and 250 pounds, is a physical freak some analysts think can become the next Roethlisberger.

Newton has NFL arm strength sans the throwing-motion quirks that beset run/passers Vince Young and Tim Tebow.

How could one not gravitate toward Newton?

The last quarterback who looked this good coming out of the Southeastern Conference West was …um, JaMarcus Russell.

"I know he isn't JaMarcus Russell," said Gil Brandt, the former Dallas Cowboys vice president and now an analyst for NFL.com.

Brandt is staking his professional reputation that Newton isn't remotely related to the Oakland Raiders' top choice of 2007.

"I think he's going to be a successful NFL quarterback," Brandt said of Newton.

Newton is an near physical clone to Russell, who had just led Louisiana State to a Sugar Bowl win over Notre Dame.

"I can't wait to get in the black and silver and get to work," Russell said on draft day.

Then he called in sick for his career — 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions.

Russell joined the long list of No.1-pick quarterbacks who failed to measure up: Jeff George (1990), Tim Couch (1999), David Carr (2002), Alex Smith (2005). Ryan Leaf was a second-pick bust with San Diego in 1998 but was actually considered 1-A to Peyton Manning.

The bottom line is, despite all the time and money teams invest into drafting, there are no guarantees.

Newton certainly hasn't enamored everyone.

Nolan Nawrocki, in the Pro Football Weekly draft guide, called him "very disingenuous" with a "fake smile." Former NFL receiver and NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth gave Newton only a 40% chance of success. "I just have a ton of questions," Collinsworth recently told Newsday.

Kiper said Newton had huge risk/reward.

"He could be great, he could be a disappointment," Kiper said on a conference call.

Newton played only 14 games at Auburn, in a simplified, no-huddle system.

Eyebrows were raised when ESPN analyst Jon Gruden asked Newton to recite one of Auburn's plays, and Newton couldn't do it.

Gruden didn't see it as a fatal flaw. "It's not his fault they don't huddle," he said of Auburn's offense.

But don't they in the NFL?

One of the toughest tricks in sports is predicting how a running quarterback, from a spread offense, translates from college to the pros.

There are certain things, though, you never know about an NFL quarterback until he plays quarterback in the NFL.

"The big thing is you never know how these guys are going to respond to getting hit," Gruden said.

Not to mention all the intricate nuances of reading defenses — "Check-off" in the NFL is not a Russian playwright.

Opposing forces are also allowed to draft first-round linebackers.

"They're paid to stop and demoralize quarterbacks," Gruden said, "especially young ones."

There are too many intangibles to make anyone a draft-pick genius.

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