With the 2010 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Before the 2011 scouting combine begins on Feb. 24, we'll be taking a closer look at the 40 draft-eligible players who may be the biggest difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue our series with Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner started his collegiate career at Florida, where he played in five games in 2007 and redshirted in 2008. However, it was obvious that Tim Tebow(notes) was the Gators' quarterback of the future, so Newton transferred to Blinn College in Texas, led the Buccaneers to the 2009 NJCAA national championship, and transferred to Auburn in time for the 2010 season. In just one year with the Tigers, Newton dominated with some crazy numbers – 1,473 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns on just 264 carries, and 185 completions in 280 passing attempts for 2,854 yards, 30 passing touchdowns, and just seven interceptions.
Newton ended his collegiate career with Auburn's narrow national championship-grabbing win over the Oregon Ducks, but he also carries controversy with him. Questions about his arrest for possession of a stolen laptop and stories about his father's involvement in his career blur the picture, but the Cam Newton that shows up on game tape is one of the more intriguing draft prospects in recent years.
Pros: On quarterback draws, Newton shows a command of play-action, and he hits gaps very quickly. Extremely impressive burst in the open field – he has a second gear that he can turn on at any time. Glides past defenders like a big receiver more than a running back – his size (6-foot-6, 250 pounds) speaks to that. Uses his quick feet to redirect in space before defenders can catch up to his moves. Nifty footwork in the pocket; Newton doesn't fall apart before rolling out like a lot of more mobile quarterbacks.
Throwing motion is over the top, but there is a slight lag that will need to be worked out. Newton's superior rushing skills makes play-action devastating in the Auburn offense and makes him particularly tough to deal with in the Pistol formation. Obviously, he's great when throwing on the move – he keeps his looks downfield as he extends the play. Newton has a huge arm and can make every throw. He has good arc on bombs and outstanding velocity on stick throws.
Cons: As a thrower, Newton doesn't always spring back in his dropbacks to optimal throwing setup, leading to inaccurate arm throws. Used to taking one read before throwing or running – perhaps two at most – leading to questions about the time it would take to get him prepared to play in a multiple-read offense.
Conclusion: Newton has a few fixable mechanical issues. He doesn't have any obvious idiosyncrasies to his game; no odd motions and his upfield speed is a wonder to behold. The real questions about Newton come from the things one can't always see on the field – football I.Q., ability to make every read consistently, and ability to take snap after snap under center.
These are the same questions that have dogged every option quarterback trying to transition to a pro-style offense, but Newton has advantages that his predecessors didn't. First, while most spread-offense quarterbacks had noodle arms, Newton can air it downfield as well as any quarterback at any level. Second, with the number of shotgun snaps increasing by over 300 percent in the last decade, those quarterbacks who played in these types of offenses aren't doomed.
In 2008, current Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey employed the Pistol offense with former college spread quarterback Tyler Thigpen(notes) to great effect, and in 2009, Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger ran the triple option with Vince Young(notes) at quarterback – the result was an incredible offense in which running back Chris Johnson gained over 2,000 yards on the ground. If Newton finds himself on an NFL team (like Buffalo, which would be by far his best fit as long as Gailey's still there), he could reinvent the position of quarterback in the NFL by becoming the first read-and-run field general to succeed year after year.
Newton is as talented as any quarterback of this type has ever been. But who will meet him halfway, and is he ready for the transition?
NFL Comparison: Vince Young, (formerly) Tennessee Titans
More Shutdown 40
#40 -- Rodney Hudson, OG, Florida State | #39 - Luke Stocker, TE, Tennessee
| #38 - Phil Taylor, DT, Baylor | #37 - Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas | #36 -- Leonard Hankerson, WR, Miami | #35 -- Danny Watkins, OL, Baylor | #34 - Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State | #33 -- Christian Ponder, QB, Florida State | #32 - Mike Pouncey, OL, Florida | #31 - Nate Solder, OT, Colorado | #30 - Kyle Rudolph, TE, Notre Dame | #29 - Mikel Leshoure, RB, Illinois | #28 - Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State | #27 - Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA | #26 - Brandon Harris, CB, Miami | #25 - Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin | #24 -- Jake Locker, QB, Washington| #23 -- Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado| #22 - J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin | #21 - Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois| #20 - Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State | #19 - Torrey Smith, WR, Maryland | #18 - Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue | #17 - Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama | #16 - Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa | #15 - Tyron Smith, OT, USC | #14 - Aldon Smith, OLB, Missouri | #13 - Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College