- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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A year ago, it was pretty easy to figure out the St. Louis Rams had no choice but to draft Sam Bradford instead of Ndamukong Suh. A potential franchise quarterback will have more impact -- long- and short-term -- than a dominating defensive tackle.
A Cam Newton-Nick Fairley debate isn't as one-sided. Newton showed at the combine Sunday he's no slam dunk to be offensive rookie of the year. Though his powerful right arm is electrifying, the mechanics of transforming from a one-year spread offense sensation at Auburn into an NFL starting quarterback will take time. In fact, the team that drafts him would be best served to sit him for his rookie season, as the Houston Oilers did with Steve McNair.
Nine teams in the top 16 picks of the first round have varying degrees of quarterback needs, so let's quickly investigate the teams that would be foolish to pass on Newton's passing potential. The teams that could pass on Newton are ones with job-secure coaches who have the luxury of going for veteran quarterbacks, or first-year coaches on teams with veteran-laden rosters.
Teams such as Arizona, San Francisco, Washington, Miami, Jacksonville and Minnesota could pass on Newton because he's not the quarterback who can help them win now. Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers and Leslie Frazier of the Vikings are the only first-year coaches in that group. Ken Whisenhunt of the Cardinals is secure because he won an NFC title recently. Mike Shanahan of the Redskins, Tony Sparano of the Dolphins and Jack Del Rio of the Jaguars need to win now, so developing Newton probably doesn't work perfectly for them.
That leaves Carolina, Buffalo and Tennessee. All three teams need to seriously consider Newton. The Panthers believe Jimmy Clausen can be a decent starter, but Newton could bring them a better version of Vince Young. That may mean only 54 percent completions in his first season, but Young won a lot of games in Tennessee, as did McNair.
In Buffalo, Newton's personality and the way he handles himself may clash with the area, but he's more talented than Ryan Fitzpatrick. In Tennessee, Newton would work, and so would Blaine Gabbert. With a new head coach (Mike Munchak), the Titans can afford to take a step back at quarterback in order to move forward eventually as a franchise.
Suh had as great a season in 2010 as the Detroit Lions could have envisioned, helping to knock off close to 60 yards from their defensive stats. But the Lions still won only six games. If Bills coach Chan Gailey passes on Newton for a defensive lineman and the Bills go from four to six wins, another coach could be making choices next season.
From the inbox
Q: The new coaching staff in Carolina has mentioned the need for a "do-it-all" tight end on several occasions now. Assuming they look outside of the organization, and that there is some type of free-agency or trade market, what veterans do you see as a good fit? Do you see them looking to the draft in a year without many elite TE prospects?
Pat in Charlotte, N.C.
A: The good news for Panthers fans is that the new coaches "get it." They know they have to get a tight end who can catch the ball as well as block. They've needed that for years. The Panthers have conceded the middle of the field in the passing game for years by not having a consistent pass-catching tight end along with a proven slot receiver. As a show of good faith, they brought in veteran tight end Jeremy Shockey for a visit. Miami and Carolina are two teams looking for significant upgrades at tight end. While Shockey has plenty of wear and tear on him, he might be the most viable option. This isn't a great tight end draft. The Panthers are acting as though a tight end acquisition is a priority, though.
Q: I have two questions. First, how will rookies be affected if there is a lockout? The union has told players to save money for a lockout but drafted players have no money to fall back on. Will drafted rookies break union ranks to get paid or will the union or agents front them money until a new CBA is in place? Second question is without a CBA, can teams sign undrafted free agents or do those players have to wait until there is a new CBA?
Bryan in Jackson, Miss.
A: If the draft choice is a good one, his agent will have to take care of him. You raise an interesting point. Agents have to pay a lot of money to train draft-choice candidates for the combine and individual workouts. Agents will have to dig deeper into their pockets to take care of rookies if there is no labor agreement by the summer. Remember, the draft proceeds as normal, but nothing is normal after that. Pro days will continue. Visits to teams by college draftees will be fine. There is no chance the rookies will break union ranks. They aren't part of the union and teams are prohibited from signing them. On your second question, teams can't sign undrafted players until there is a CBA.
Q: Let's compare QBs. I say if you were able to pick up and drop Josh Freeman in New York and Mark Sanchez in Tampa Bay leaving the rest of the rosters the same, the Jets already would have that ring Rex Ryan keeps guaranteeing. I also think that Sanchez would have the career path of a David Carr or Joey Harrington if he were thrown into the Tampa situation with all those rookies, undrafted free agents and injuries instead of a Super Bowl caliber lineup surrounding him in New York. Freeman is the best QB out of those three first-rounders, and what he has done in Tampa is remarkable. I can't wait until he becomes 100 percent polished!
Ed in Cape Coral, Fla.
A: Ed, you may be on to something, but I wouldn't say Freeman would have taken the Jets to the Super Bowl in either of his first two years. Go back to Ben Roethlisberger. He has been an elite quarterback, but it took him a few years to polish his act. After his second year, Freeman is on the verge of being an elite quarterback. I do think Freeman's upside is better than Sanchez's. In a year or so, I probably will lean to your position and say Freeman has a better chance of being a Super Bowl quarterback than Sanchez. I'm not taking anything away from Sanchez, who has four road playoff wins, but I have never thought his upside would allow him to be an elite quarterback. Freeman could be better in the long run. With Sanchez, though, the Jets have established a winner's mentality.
Q: I was wondering why the NFL has all these options like base salary, incentives, etc. How come the NFL doesn't use the simple model of salary the NHL, NBA and MLB use?
Gurinder in Kelowna, British Columbia
A: Simple is more costly. The reason the NFL has incentives, roster bonuses, option bonuses and everything else is because it doesn't guarantee contracts. An agent came up with an interesting thought the other day. He said you can shrink the salary cap to $100 million without any problem: simply guarantee contracts and players will sign for less in base salary. That doesn't work for an NFL team. Teams average between 2.5 and 3.5 injuries a week. Payrolls would skyrocket with too many guaranteed contracts, so players have been enticed with incentives and bonuses and more complicated contracts.
Q: John, I have a question about players who have signed their franchise tender. Since this is a one-year guaranteed contract, will the players get paid the entire amount of the contract even if some games are not played due to the lockout? For that matter, how would a lockout affect any guaranteed money in a contract? So often I hear this term guaranteed money when it comes to NFL contracts. To me guaranteed means that a player gets the money even if games are not played.
Steve in Villa Hills, Ky.
A: The union advised all players to prepare for a lockout by putting more money in the bank. What better way of doing that by locking in a $10 million franchise guarantee? That said, the players only get the money if the games are played although there might be a case to be made in court that they should be paid if there are no games. Everything is in flux. There is no guarantee those guaranteed franchise tags will hold up past Thursday if there is no collective bargaining agreement. Signing the tenders, though, protects the players because teams have the ability to revoke them unless they are signed.
Q: Being an Arizona fan in South Carolina makes it difficult to be aware of the most up-to-date news on my team. It's obvious the Cardinals do not have a 2011 starting QB on the roster that would be successful. What do you think is the best route? Blaine Gabbert in the draft or Kevin Kolb in a trade?
From Tyler in Clemson, S.C.
A: We've got you covered, Tyler. The Cardinals would prefer to get a veteran quarterback. There is no question they would love to get Kolb, but it could cost them the No. 5 pick in the first round. They will be in constant contact with the Eagles, but if the Eagles ask for too much, the Cardinals will have to go in another direction. The preference in Arizona is not to go for a rookie quarterback. Forget Donovan McNabb. Mike Shanahan said he probably won't be available until after the draft. Kyle Orton might not be available, either. John Fox is calling him his starting quarterback in Denver.
Q: I'm a Baltimore Ravens fan, but I'm still not completely sold on Joe Flacco. Maybe it's the offensive system, but Flacco just isn't very exciting to watch and he kills me with his bonehead decisions (holding on to the ball too long, throwing into coverage). What is your opinion of Flacco? Do you think he is as good as many Baltimore fans portray him to be?
Thomas in South Orange, N.J.
A: I take all the criticism in the world because I have Flacco as an elite quarterback. He has been on three playoff teams. The holding-on-to-the-ball criticism has so much to do with the receivers. When the Ravens match up against good man coverage defenses, the receivers don't have enough speed and separation to give him an open target. He has to hold the ball until Todd Heap and Ray Rice get into their routes. Ben Roethlisberger didn't have his breakout season until the fourth year. Having survived the Kyle Boller experience, Ravens fans should have one motto -- "In Flacco we trust."
Q: With where the Raiders are right now, I know that OL is probably the biggest need that won't be helped with the re-signing of key free agents. What potential free agents for the OL can you see the Raiders going after? I think that LG Justin Blalock and RG/RT Marshal Yanda are the two I think they could get for a fair price that fit their new scheme.
Rico in California
A: You've hit on my biggest fear for the Raiders. Six of their top nine offensive linemen are free agents. They've already made $74.5 million in contract commitments for three defensive players. Going out and spending on costly free-agent offensive linemen will be tough. I'll be honest, I don't know how Al Davis can pull this off. He believes his team is close after an eight-win season, but the free-agent problems overall are severe. I knew going into the offseason it would tough to keep this team together.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
It would be foolish to pass on Cam Newton's passing potential, John Clayton writes in his latest mailbag.