Cam Newton: Stud or Bust?

March 4, 2011

In recent memory, perhaps no quarterback prospect has been as polarizing as Cam Newton. In the past three days alone, I heard Colin Cowherd saying he would be a shoo-in as the #1 overall pick, Mel Kiper Jr. dropping him from seventh to tenth on the Big Board (and dropping him from first to second among quarterbacks in the process) because of a poor performance at the draft combine, and KC Joyner argued that Newton should not even be drafted in the first round. That is what you call diversity.

You could make an argument that Tim Tebow was fairly polarizing last year, since nearly every analyst ripped the Broncos for taking him in the first round. But even that doesn’t really work, because it was only the Broncos who thought Tebow should have been a first round pick. Nobody else outside of Gainesville would have drafted Tebow in the first round.

Maybe Vince Young was that polarizing. I seem to recall that people had concerns about his throwing motion. The 2006 draft was weird though – three teams in the top eleven picks drafted quarterbacks. 2004 was the only other year in the past decade that happened. Young was clearly one of the three best options at quarterback that year, so you couldn’t really make an argument that he was not a first round quarterback.

As I have pointed out in this blog before, drafting quarterbacks is largely a crapshoot. For every Peyton Manning there is a Ryan Leaf. For every Donovan McNabb there is an Akili Smith. And so on.

Analysts have been trying to figure out which quarterbacks will succeed since the inception of the NFL Draft. Now there is a mini-industry around projecting NFL draft picks, the draft combine is actually televised, and analysts start writing up mock drafts within days after one draft ends. Yet they haven’t really gotten much better at predicting successful quarterbacks. JaMarcus Russell with the first overall pick, anyone?

The most egregious recent example is Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers in 2005. Check out this gem of a report from Alex Smith’s pro day in March of 2005. At the time, the 49ers were expected to take the hometown Rodgers with the first overall pick. Then Smith wowed with his arm accuracy and footwork at his pre-draft workout. It would be the last time he wowed anybody. You know how the story ends: Rodgers won this year’s Super Bowl with the Packers and 49ers fans actually chanted for David Carr during a game this season.

Which brings me back to Newton. Apparently Newton was less than impressive at the combine this past week. I can’t figure out why anyone should care. Newton is a freakishly good athlete who just put up ridiculous stats en route to winning both the Heisman Trophy and the National Championship. He is exceptionally fast and elusive and has the size of Big Ben. How is the best quarterback in the draft up for debate? If you know that drafting a quarterback is a crapshoot anyway, do you want to go down in flames with Blaine Gabbert or Cam Newton? Seems that the answer should be pretty simple.

Yet Mel Kiper writes gems like this on his Big Board when bumping Gabbert over Newton: “Strong arm, excellent accuracy, prototypical size and physical skills. Smart not to throw in Indy, though proved he’s probably an underrated athlete.” That’s not a knock on Kiper – he just writes what NFL teams are thinking. The knock is on NFL teams for thinking that, and if the Alex Smith debacle taught us anything, it’s that NFL teams actually are thinking on those lines. What use is a draft combine when someone who DOESN’T THROW AT ALL comes out looking better than someone who did step up and throw. That doesn’t even border on anything close to logic.

Then there are the straight-up Newton haters like KC Joyner. In the second sentence of his column, he points out that the NFL Draft is full of physical specimens who didn’t pan out, like Brian Bosworth, Mike Mamula, and Lawrence Phillips. Two sentences in and Joyner has already lost me. He just compared Newton to a) a linebacker who ingested enough steroids to take down a horse; b) a guy who was never considered good until he bench pressed a lot of weight at the aforementioned combined; and c) the worst person ever. Assuming Newton isn’t on the ‘roids, none of those three situations are at all comparable to his situation.

Joyner then goes on to point out all of Newton’s flaws. Things like he overthrew a pass after he took an eight-step drop when he was supposed to take a nine-step drop or taking too long to throw a ball because he lingered too long with his running back on a play fake. Who cares?

As you can tell from my blog posts, I hate under-thinking things. I have spent time thinking about minor nuances in sports that no one else ever bothered to think about. But my pet peeve is over-thinking things. That is exactly what Joyner and the rest of the people that question Newton’s draft stock are doing here. When a guy like Newton is out there and you spend time dissecting his eight-step drop versus nine-step drop…well, that’s over-thinking.

With a physical specimen and proven winner like Newton, you draft first and worry about minor footwork issues later. Maybe Blaine Gabbert will end up being a better quarterback. Maybe Newton will end up being a huge bust. Maybe the whole “pro-style” quarterback ranking that puts Gabbert at #1 is really all it is cracked up to be. I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that in three years, half of the analysts will get to say “I told you so” no matter what happens. Those analysts don’t know any more than the rest of us, they will just happen to guess right.

So if we’re guessing anyway, which of these two do you draft:

Player A: 14-0 record, 30 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 2,908 passing yards, 2nd in nation in QB rating
Player B: 10-3 record, 16 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 3,186 passing yards, 69th in nation in QB rating

I thought so.

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