NFL draft 2011: Tracing Cam Newton's journey to the NFL

"If he's successful, people are going to love him and the coach and general manager that take him are going to look like very smart guys. If he's not successful, it's probably going to cost that coach and general manager their jobs."
-- a former NFL talent evaluator

Cam Newton
Kent Horner/Getty Images
Newton's college credentials are impressive, but is he a faster Ben Roethlisberger or the next Akili Smith?

Cam Newton has been a huge success just about everywhere he has been.

He won a national championship and a Heisman Trophy at Auburn, plus a national junior college title at Blinn College. Coaches, scouts, decision-makers and media draft gurus frequently mention the quarterback in the same context as players such as Ben Roethlisberger and Josh Freeman. Some will tell you Newton has the potential to be even better than Roethlisberger and Freeman.

So why is it that some people in those very same jobs talk about Newton and mention players such as JaMarcus Russell and Akili Smith?

Well, it's mainly because most see the 21-year-old as a player who could go either way. The one thing virtually every expert agrees on is that the only thing as huge as Newton's upside is his downside.

Nobody is sure which way the pendulum will swing once Newton gets into the NFL. But in an age when the league is driven by quarterbacks more than ever, it seems a certainty someone will take a chance on Newton in the first 10 picks of the draft.

It could be the Carolina Panthers at No. 1, the Buffalo Bills at No. 3, the Arizona Cardinals at No. 5 or the Washington Redskins at No. 10. Or maybe another team will trade up to grab him.

"If he's successful, people are going to love him and the coach and general manager that take him are going to look like very smart guys," a former NFL talent evaluator said. "If he's not successful, it's probably going to cost that coach and general manager their jobs."

If it sounds as if Newton is a boom-or-bust prospect, that's because he is.

Analyzing Cam Newton

Here are three reasons Newton has a chance to be a huge NFL success.

1. His athleticism is extremely rare. Think about quarterbacks who have had big success lately -- Aaron Rodgers, Michael Vick, Roethlisberger and Freeman. They're all extremely mobile. Vick is as quick as a running back, and Rodgers is as elusive as most running backs. Roethlisberger and Freeman aren't as fast, but they're so big and strong that coaches don't mind seeing them take off because they're capable of running over linebackers. Newton has a little of the best features of all those players. He can make plays outside the pocket with his feet. Plus, he has an exceptionally strong arm.

2. Charisma. Newton has won at every level dating to high school. Teammates follow his lead, and he isn't afraid of the spotlight. As he walked into his session with the media at the NFL combine, one talent evaluator described it as "the moment time stood still." Newton has the type of personality that can charm fans and help sell tickets.

3. The right situation could make him perfect. In talking to talent evaluators, the general opinion is that Newton would benefit most if he went to a team that didn't ask him to carry it right away. Some suggest he would be better off in a situation in which he plays sparingly in his rookie year or sits at least half a season with a transition quarterback bridging the gap. Buffalo, with Ryan Fitzpatrick already in place, could be an ideal setting. But those same evaluators look at a Carolina roster that, at the moment, includes receiver Steve Smith, running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, tight end Jeremy Shockey, and a decent offensive line, and say Newton's presence instantly could improve a team that went 2-14 this past season.

Now, let's look at three reasons Newton could be a big failure in the NFL.

Cam Newton
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Newton won a national title at Auburn and Blinn JC, but he has thrown only 293 passes against major college competition.

1. He hasn't played in an NFL-style offense. At Auburn, Newton lined up in the shotgun formation frequently, and he doesn't have much experience taking snaps from under center. The Auburn offense didn't rely much on the complicated routes that are prevalent in NFL offenses. As great as Newton's college career was, it wasn't very structured, and there are strong concerns that he could fail miserably if he tries a freelance approach in the NFL.

2. In some ways, he's not Freeman, Matt Ryan, Sam Bradford or Joe Flacco. Those young quarterbacks all have had early success.

"I sat down with Ryan, Flacco, Freeman and Bradford," one talent evaluator said. "Those are four of the smartest quarterbacks I've ever interviewed coming out of college. You could cue up the film to a certain play, and they'd walk you right through every step of it for the entire offense. I saw Cam's interview with Jon Gruden, and the look on Cam's face when Jon asked him to walk him through a play scared the absolute heck out of me."

The concerns go beyond Newton's learning a complicated NFL playbook. Talent evaluators say they're not sure whether Newton can handle pre-snap reads because he didn't have to do that in college and they have no idea how he'll read and react once he takes the snap.

3. The background and so-called character issues could come back to haunt him. By now, you've heard all the reports about alleged computer theft when Newton was at Florida, and talk about alleged offers to play for pay when Newton was looking to transfer from Blinn and how that prompted an NCAA investigation. (The NCAA ruled in December that the Heisman Trophy winner was unaware of the pay-for-play scheme said to have been devised by his father, Cecil.) There have even been reports questioning Newton's work ethic and attitude. NFL teams have been doing a ton of homework on Newton, and they should. If you're going to hand the keys to your franchise to someone, you want to be certain he's not going to go straight out and crash it.