Commentary

Carolina dares to be great with Newton

Panthers throw a draft Hail Mary by taking Auburn QB with top overall pick

Originally Published: April 28, 2011
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- It began like this:

Carolina Panthers equipment manager Jackie Miles, one of the franchise's original employees, handed the handwritten selection card to an NFL official. The card made its way to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who leaned toward the microphone and, at exactly 8:05 p.m., announced that Cameron Jerrell Newton was the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft.

Six-foot-5 Newton emerged from stage left, took just nine strides to reach Goodell, then beamed for the cameras as he and the commish held a Panthers jersey against their suit jackets.

"Man, you just don't know how I'm feeling right now," said Newton, still smiling. "What I really want to do, I can't do it. I just want to scream."

Newton got what he craved Thursday evening, got what he thought he deserved -- to be the No. 1 pick of this NFL draft. But did the Panthers get what they crave -- a quarterback who will transform a faceless, often forgettable small-market franchise into an elite playoff team?

Uh, no.

If you can take a flier with the No. 1 selection, the Panthers just did it. Gush all you want about Newton's athletic measurables (jaw-dropping) and his college football body of work (two national titles, a Heisman Trophy), but I wouldn't have touched him at No. 1 with a goalpost.

Newton is a walking red flag. I question his ability to make the transition from Auburn's "Please-Cam-Make-Something-Happen" spread offense to a sophisticated pro playbook. I question his past. I question his future.

I guarantee you the Panthers were questioning it too. As recently as the day before the draft, the Panthers had four candidates for the No. 1 pick. You don't do that unless you have compelling doubts about Newton, or unless you want to deke teams into wanting to trade up.

"For a long time I would go asleep with questions like, 'Where am I going?"' said Newton, who wasn't sure of his destination until Panthers coach Ron Rivera called him in the greenroom with the news.

No general manager would admit it publicly, but here's guessing there were more than a few GMs who didn't envy the Panthers' dilemma. That's because Newton is the ultimate risk/reward player. His talent is overwhelming, but so are the concerns about his pro potential.

Newton washed out at Florida, then spent a single junior college season in a Texas town so small it barely had its own pin in the map.

He stayed just one year at Auburn and left with a BCS championship and a Heisman. But he also left behind a string of controversies as long as beer cans tied to a wedding couple's getaway car.

You know about his old man trying to shop Newton to Mississippi State for $180,000. You know that Newton played for three programs in four years. You know that he couldn't recite a single Auburn offensive play when ESPN NFL analyst Jon Gruden asked him to do so during a film session.

What does it all mean? Maybe a lot. Maybe nothing.

After all, Newton often performed spectacularly despite public, media and NCAA scrutiny. He played hurt. He led comebacks. He won a national title at Blinn College and a national title at Auburn. He won a Heisman. You could argue that if anyone can handle the blocking-sled weight of being the No. 1 pick in the draft -- and all the expectations that come with it -- Newton is your guy.

Nobody in college football has had a more tumultuous and interesting four years than Newton. From Gainesville, Fla., to Brenham, Texas, to Auburn, Ala., to center stage of Radio City Music Hall. From Tim Tebow backup to War Eagle legend. Newton makes the Dos Equis guy look dull.

Unlike his former teammate at Florida, Newton doesn't have to rebuild his throwing motion from scratch. And Newton's arm strength and throwing mechanics are better and cleaner than those of the player he's most often compared to, Vince Young.

At Carolina, Newton will replace Jimmy Clausen, the 2010 second-round pick from Notre Dame. Both Clausen and Brady Quinn (a 2007 first-rounder) were products of Charlie Weis' pro-style offense. They could recite plays out the wazoo. And both are NFL nonfactors now.

Of course, Tebow, Young, Clausen and Quinn weren't the first names announced on their draft nights. And none of them began his career as an opening day starter.

Newton had better be the starter when Carolina begins its regular season Sept. 11 at Arizona -- otherwise, what was the point of drafting him? He'll face the toughest 2011 schedule in the league (a combined nine games against Green Bay, Chicago, Indianapolis, Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay). And opposing defensive coordinators are already devising schemes to terrorize the rookie.

"I understand today that everybody's not just going to stop and say, 'All right, that's Cam, he's the No. 1 pick, now leave him alone,"' Newton said. "More than anything, the floodgates have opened officially."

If I were the Panthers, I would have taken Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus instead of Newton. It would have been the safer, more productive pick. And being safe isn't such a bad thing, especially given that this is the first time Carolina has used its No. 1 overall pick. Plus, the Panthers haven't had a first-round selection since 2008.

Or, if possible, I would have traded down. The Panthers don't have a second-round selection, but they do have more roster holes than a punting net. They could have stuck with Clausen, drafted a quarterback later, gotten more value, gotten more picks and perhaps saved some money.

But the Panthers weren't interested in safe. They were interested in a dare-to-be-great scenario. I respect that. I don't agree with it in this case, but I respect it.

And I respect Newton for thinking he can become the league's next great, young quarterback. But I don't see that, either. He won't crash and burn as VY did in just five seasons at Tennessee. But is he the next Sam Bradford, Josh Freeman or Matt Ryan? Doubtful.

"I won't say I have more to prove to people," he said. "I have more to prove to myself."

Newton has a history of proving skeptics wrong and his trophy case right. But the Panthers overreached Thursday night. They just don't know it yet.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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