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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Selections signal league's direction

Panthers take Newton at No. 1 and three other teams in top 12 also pick quarterbacks

April 29, 2011|SAM FARMER

NEW YORK — The NFL is a passing league. Nobody made that case in a more compelling way Thursday than the four teams that took quarterbacks in the first 12 picks of the draft -- the biggest early run since 1999.

The NFL is a passing league. Don't remind the Baltimore Ravens, who had the 26th pick and were trying to negotiate a trade with Chicago when the clock ran out on them. That allowed the next team in line, the Kansas City Chiefs, to slip in and make their pick before the Ravens could regroup.

It wasn't a costly gaffe -- the Ravens got the player they wanted in Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith -- but it was a reminder to stay on your toes, as quickly as that sand sifts through the hourglass.

The Carolina Panthers didn't dawdle. They had the first pick and let just five seconds tick off their 10-minute clock before announcing they had made their selection: Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, a player expected to give a big boost to the league's worst offense.

"I'm ready to get this show on the road right now," Newton told reporters after being chosen.

The same could be said of millions of football fans who have long since tired of the wearisome labor fight between owners and players and how it could threaten the season. Before the draft started, fans packed into Radio City Music Hall chanted, "We want football!" and loudly booed NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell when he walked onstage and stood at the lectern.

"I hear you, I hear you," Goodell said repeatedly before the booing died down.

The league, reeling from a series of courtroom losses, said it would adhere to the ruling of U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson and lift the lockout Friday by opening its facilities to players. An announcement about when free agency begins is said to follow.

After Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller was selected second by Denver, he walked across the stage and gave Goodell a huge bear hug that lasted several seconds. It was a somewhat surprising reaction considering Miller is one of the plaintiffs named in the players' antitrust lawsuit against the league.

Later, Miller explained the courtroom conflict didn't dampen his in-the-moment excitement.

"I've never had anything against Roger Goodell," he said. "I just want to make sure football continues to get played. When I walked across the stage, I was meeting the commissioner. That was it."

Most of Thursday night, mercifully, was about football, with teams sometimes making surprising moves.

It looked as if the anticipated run on quarterbacks might not happen when the six teams that followed the Newton pick all chose to go different directions (even though four of those needed signal callers.)

But the Tennessee Titans, who have parted ways with Vince Young, got the QB-go-round going by taking Washington's Jake Locker eighth. Two picks later, Jacksonville made a trade with the Washington Redskins at No. 10 to grab Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who was expected to go earlier and was languishing in the green room.

Then came the biggest surprise. With the Brett Favre era over, Minnesota took Florida State's Christian Ponder. It was just the third time in the Vikings' 51-year history that the club took a quarterback in the first round, with Ponder joining Tommy Kramer in 1977 and Daunte Culpepper in 1999.

Asked about the notion some draft pundits would consider Ponder a reach at No. 12, Vikings executive Rick Spielman said: "Not off our board it wasn't. We felt very confident where we graded him."

Only time will tell how smart these teams were, although that harsh light of perspective wasn't altogether flattering to most of the franchises that took quarterbacks in the great flurry of 1999 when the top 12 included Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, Culpepper and Cade McNown -- more than half of whom were washouts.

As for players from Southern California schools, USC tackle Tyron Smith cracked the top 10 -- going ninth to Dallas -- but UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers fell out of the first round. He surely will be selected Friday when the second and third rounds are held.

The San Diego Chargers at No. 18 drafted Illinois defensive tackle Corey Liuget, a player many experts thought might go earlier.

The only running back to go in the opening round was Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, who was taken 28th by New Orleans.

With the Saints drafting a running back, it could spell curtains for former USC star Reggie Bush -- or at least Bush made it sound that way when he wrote on Twitter: "It's been fun in New Orleans."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesfarmer

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

THE FIRST FIVE

1. Carolina

Cam Newton

Quarterback

2. Denver

Von Miller

Linebacker

3. Buffalo

Marcell Dareus

Defensive tackle

4. Cincinnati

A.J. Green

Wide receiver

5. Arizona

Patrick Peterson

Defensive back

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