While Carolina Panthers rookie quarterback and first overall draft pick Cam Newton has looked impressive at times through his first preseason, it's pretty clear that he's still getting the hang of the NFL's advanced passing concepts. Through four preseason games, he completed 24 passes in 57 attempts for 300 yards, and it took him until the preseason finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers before Newton threw his first pro touchdown pass — a 10-yarder to tight end Jeremy Shockey with 6:07 left in the first quarter.
Newton is still learning, but he'll be starting Week 1 for the Panthers when they face the Arizona Cardinals for two reasons: Because he was selected first overall, and because he's so much better than Jimmy Clausen, last year's supposed hope at the quarterback position. Clausen has never remotely resembled an NFL starter and went 7 for 17 against the Steelers' backups.
And in that Cards game, Newton will be returning to University of Phoenix Stadium — the last time he was there, he was leading the Auburn Tigers to a national championship over the Oregon Ducks. So he has succeeded with, as Brent Musberger would put it, "all the Tostitos" on the line.
The question is, what's he ready to do in the pros? At least one former NFL superstar (and Auburn alum, it must be said) is on the bandwagon. Bo Jackson recently said on "The Jim Rome Show" that Newton "has the arm strength and power of Dan Marino and John Elway combined. He is quicker than Michael Vick — faster than Michael Vick. And he will run over you with the power of a Jerome Bettis."
Future Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, who had his own success in that same stadium when he played for the Cardinals, said on Thursday's "Total Access" show that he's not quite as convinced — no matter how talented Newton may be, it's going to be a rough go for a while.
"Is he ready? No," Warner said. "He's not ready. I think we've seen it in the preseason — to be able to drop back in the pocket and read professional coverages and make the throws? He's not ready. I've talked to people down there, and they love his presence. They love the fact that he's trying to throw the ball down the field. He's trying to make these reads — he's not just looking at one [receiver] and running. He's making that progress, but he's not ready to be in a drop-back, pro-style offense yet. They're going to give him some plays to make with his feet, and they're going to give him some plays out of the pocket, but it's going to be a long season for him with the guys that are around him.
"But they've got no choice. Cam Newton's going to start Week 1, and he's going to be there all 16 games, and he's going to have to take his lumps and learn from it."
I would agree. While Newton has shown that he's just as much a superlative runner in the NFL — he led the Panthers in preseason rushing yards with 86 — he's going to struggle with the simple mechanics of the quarterback position at the NFL level. He's not used to dropping back from under center, which leaves him stepping awkwardly back to pass and missing on a lot of his shorter timing routes.
And while he does have an amazingly strong arm (in my mind, one of the five best in the NFL already from a pure velocity perspective), he's still getting the hang of the NFL route tree. The Panthers would be well-served to set Newton up on a shotgun-heavy diet with minimal risk to his own body — more rollouts to throw than pure running plays — and let the dropbacks come in time. If they give him too much pro-style stuff too soon, they risk hiding his amazing gifts through his rookie campaign.