Combine those red flags with Newton’s limited body of work and the simplistic offense he ran at Auburn, and it’s easy to see why such quarterback-needy teams choosing in the top 10 such as the Panthers, Bills (No. 3), Bengals (No. 4), Cardinals (No. 5), 49ers (No. 7), Titans (No. 8) and Redskins (No. 10) may be hesitant to pull the trigger on draft day. As the Niners, Cardinals and Raiders have found out in recent times, making a mistake on a quarterback with a premium pick can set a franchise back for years.
So while Newton is generally viewed as this year’s Tim Tebow, who brought similar star power and stellar collegiate credentials along with a unique skill set that front-office decision-makers were unsure would translate to the pro game into last April’s draft, it’s just as possible he’ll be the 2011 version of Jimmy Clausen, a perceived sure-fire first-round selection who lasted until the 48th overall pick last year mainly due to concerns about his leadership traits.
One thing’s for sure, however. No matter where Newton is taken roughly a month from now, people will be talking afterward.
Here’s a stab at how the first round could play out. As always, these predictions will likely change significantly over the coming weeks.
1) Carolina Panthers: Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn — The Panthers have showed a lot of interest in both Newton and his main competition to be the top quarterback of this class, Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert, but the feeling here is that’s a ploy to entice someone else to trade into this spot. New head coach Ron Rivera could also sorely use an impact interior pass rusher for his aggressive defense, and the incredibly explosive Fairley fits the bill to the tee.
2) Denver Broncos: Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama — Offseason releases of veterans Jamal Williams and Justin Bannan show Denver plans to make defensive tackle a high priority here, and the team appears to have locked onto Dareus, who’s also drawn plenty of consideration for the No. 1 pick. Though used as a grunt-work guy as a 3-4 end by the Crimson Tide, he showed the quickness and athleticism to be a potentially dominating three-technique at the combine.
3) Buffalo Bills: Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri — The Bills won’t be able to compete with the Patriots and Jets in the AFC East without a true top-level quarterback, and Gabbert has the best chance of being that guy with a bust- factor that’s considerably less than Newton. A great situation for the former Mizzou gunslinger, as Chan Gailey’s an excellent QB tutor and he won’t have to be immediately thrown to the wolves with the capable Ryan Fitzpatrick still on the roster.
4) Cincinnati Bengals: Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina — Bengals could go in a number of directions here, as Carson Palmer’s retirement threat makes finding a developmental quarterback a must and the wide receiver corps could be going through a transition phase as well. The pass rush was woeful last year, however, and Quinn would make a nice complement to 2010 rookie standout Carlos Dunlap as long as he checks out medically.
5) Arizona Cardinals: Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M — The Cardinals are very high on Gabbert and would probably grab him if available, but may be less likely to roll the dice on Newton. Miller’s a far safer choice and fills the team’s biggest need, a young pass rusher to come off the edge in their 3-4 scheme.
6) Cleveland Browns: Da’Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson — While it wouldn’t be surprising if Mike Holmgren targets a top-flight wide receiver like Georgia’s A.J. Green or Alabama’s Julio Jones to give promising quarterback Colt McCoy a needed weapon, the Browns are in even worse shape across the defensive line. Bowers is an elite talent who can step in immediately, though the Clemson junior must show his offseason knee problems aren’t a long-term issue.
7) San Francisco 49ers: Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU — Many insiders feel the freakishly-gifted Peterson, who ran a blazing 4.34 at the combine and carries a chiseled 219 pounds on a six-foot frame, is the best overall player in this class. Seeking a replacement for the aging and overpaid Nate Clements, the 49ers won’t let him get away if he falls this far.
8) Tennessee Titans: Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska — A possible landing spot for Newton, as quarterback is clearly the Titans’ biggest deficiency with Vince Young about to be shown the door. Whether they’ll want to take on another potential headache after ridding themselves of one remains to be seen, however. Though cornerback isn’t a real problem area, you can never have too many quality cover men in a division where Peyton Manning resides.
9) Dallas Cowboys: Tyron Smith, OT, Southern California — Jerry Jones is believed to have a major man-crush on Peterson, so a trade up is certainly a possibility. Dallas has also kept a close watch on the ascending Smith, who would offer a shot of youth and athleticism to a front line that’s getting long in the tooth.
10) Washington Redskins: A.J. Green, WR, Georgia — This would be a dream scenario for the Burgundy and Gold if Green, one of the most polished pass- catchers in recent memory, drops into this spot. Odds are it won’t happen, though, so the Redskins may look to use this pick to bolster their over-the- hill defense. Jones is a possibility as well if they’re set on obtaining a receiver.
11) Houston Texans: Justin Houston, OLB, Georgia — The Texans want to land a high-level cornerback to help turn around an atrocious pass defense, but Amukamara’s gone in this mock. If that’s the case in the actual draft, look for the team to try to trade down for a corner or for a pass-rushing prospect like Houston, whose stock is on the rise after a terrific combine but would be a reach at 11.
12) Minnesota Vikings: Julio Jones, WR, Alabama — Count the Vikings as another team with quarterback issues that passes on Newton. GM Rick Spielman likes to take a best available player approach, and Jones would be very intriguing addition to a team that has potential free agent Sidney Rice and the injury- prone Percy Harvin as its top two receivers.
13) Detroit Lions: Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College — Keeping brittle quarterback Matthew Stafford healthy is priority No. 1 for the up-and-coming Lions, so they’d do well by adding an experienced and technically-sound blocker like Castonzo, a four-year starter for the Eagles. There’s a need for depth here to boot, as left tackle Jeff Backus turns 34 in September and right-side starter Gosder Cherilus had microfracture knee surgery in December.
14) St. Louis Rams: Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois — A play-making No. 1 receiver to team with reigning Rookie of the Year Sam Bradford appears to be the top priority, so the Rams would take a hard look at Jones if available. The fast- rising Liuget would make a nice consolation prize, however, and his penetrating skills are well-suited for Steve Spagnuolo’s attacking defense.
15) Miami Dolphins: Cam Newton, QB, Auburn — Every prognosticator on the planet seems to have Alabama running back Mark Ingram as the Dolphins’ preferred pick, and the 2009 Heisman recipient makes sense to a team eyeing an upgrade at that spot. But if Newton’s still on the board, look for Miami to snatch him up. Owner Stephen Ross desperately wants a marquee attraction to energize the fan base, and Chad Henne may not be the long-term answer at quarterback.
16) Jacksonville Jaguars: Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue — The Jaguars have been searching for stability at defensive end for seemingly forever. Kerrigan’s a high-motor, high-character player that will appeal to head coach Jack Del Rio, and the Boilermakers’ standout proved he’s a quality athlete as well at the combine.
17) New England Patriots (from Oakland): Cameron Jordan, DE, California — After getting this pick from the Raiders in exchange for Richard Seymour two years ago, the Patriots still haven’t found a viable replacement for the Pro Bowl end. With an excellent combination of size (6-4, 287), quickness and bloodlines (his father made six Pro Bowls as a tight end with the Vikings), Jordan has the look of a player that would appeal to Bill Belichick.
18) San Diego Chargers: J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin — The run on defensive linemen continues with Watt, who lived in Big Ten opponents’ backfields this past fall and further enhanced his prospects by testing extremely well at the combine. GM A.J. Smith was noticeably present at the Badgers’ Pro Day, a pretty good sign that the Bolts have legitimate interest.
19) New York Giants: Mike Pouncey, C, Florida — Age and injuries crippled the G-Men along the interior front line last season, and center Shaun O’Hara nor left guard Rich Seubert can no longer be counted on to hold up over a full 16 games. Pouncey, the twin brother of Steelers Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, can step in at either spot and provide necessary elements of youth and depth.
20) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri — The Bucs’ most pressing need is a game-changing pass rusher, and the raw but supremely-talented Smith has drawn comparisons to former Tampa star Simeon Rice for his long-armed build and explosiveness off the edge. With Aqib Talib’s recent off-field troubles and Ronde Barber’s age, cornerback could be a target area here as well.
21) Kansas City Chiefs: Leonard Hankerson, WR, Miami — An otherwise banner season for the Chiefs ended on a sour note with back-to-back losses in which the offense’s limitations were exposed. Hankerson’s a big, physical receiver who’s vaulted into first-round territory with a strong senior year with the Hurricanes and an even better offseason, and should help alleviate the double teams No. 1 wideout Dwayne Bowe routinely saw.
22) Indianapolis Colts: Nate Solder, OT, Colorado — The Colts struggled to sufficiently protect Peyton Manning last season, so acquiring an improvement at the all-important left tackle position should be high on the team’s to-do list. As a former tight end with exceptionally nimble feet, Solder is tailor-made for Indy’s pass-heavy offense and could give the team the blind-side bodyguard it’s been clamoring for.
23) Philadelphia Eagles: Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado — Philadelphia is set at one corner slot with ball-hawk Asante Samuel, but there’s some serious concerns on the opposite side with Ellis Hobbs possibly forced to retire due to a neck injury and the remainder of the roster littered with special-teams types. The 6-2, 211-pound Smith is a big-time talent who will likely fall out of the top half of the first round because he’s a character risk. Having gambled and won on Michael Vick, the Eagles may not be a team that’s scared off.
24) New Orleans Saints: Jabaal Sheard, DE, Pittsburgh — Head coach Sean Payton’s primary objective is to get the Saints’ defense back to the turnover- causing ways it displayed during the 2009 championship season, but that goal’s only attainable if New Orleans can create more havoc up front. There’s also little behind veteran regulars Will Smith and Alex Brown at defensive end, so stockpiling athletic edge rushers such as Sheard, who amassed nine sacks as a senior with the Panthers, could be the first order of business.
25) Seattle Seahawks: Brandon Harris, CB, Miami — Pete Carroll wasn’t pleased with the Seahawks’ cornerback play in his return to the NFL, and Harris’ toughness and adeptness in press coverage fits the tone that the energetic head coach wants to set on defense. With Matt Hasselbeck a free agent and turning 36 in September, there’s also been speculation of Seattle using this pick on a quarterback, with hometown hero and ex-University of Washington triggerman Jake Locker a popular mock choice.
26) Baltimore Ravens: Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State — The Ravens’ offensive line failed to meet expectations last season, with 2009 first-rounder Michael Oher particularly disappointing at left tackle after excelling on the right side as a rookie. Adding Sherrod, who showed at the Senior Bowl he’s got the skills to handle left-side responsibilities, could enable the team to switch Oher back. Baltimore will also be on the lookout for a wide receiver with speed, as Anquan Boldin and graybeard Derrick Mason are essentially possession types.
27) Atlanta Falcons: Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa — Atlanta has usually favored college seniors with proven track records under GM Thomas Dimitroff’s watch, and with sack artist John Abraham about to enter his 12th professional season, there’s also a desire to add some new blood at defensive end. While Clayborn doesn’t offer elite athleticism, he’s solid in all phases and should develop into a steady starter.
28) New England Patriots: Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama — History says the Patriots will explore all means to try to trade down into the second round, but that premise could very well change if a player of Ingram’s caliber slides this far. Though New England got surprisingly good production out of the undrafted tandem of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead last year, neither offers the all- around package the former Heisman Trophy presents.
29) Chicago Bears: Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin — J’Marcus Webb was a pleasant surprise as rookie right tackle last season, and the Bears believe he can become an effective starter on the left. Carimi, the 2010 Outland Trophy winner, is your typical Wisconsin lineman — big, nasty and well-coached — and is the type of player you can plug in at right tackle and not worry about that position for a decade.
30) New York Jets: Brooks Reed, OLB, Arizona — Though the Jets’ defense is plenty good as presently comprised, what’s keeping the unit from attaining championship-level status is the lack of a consistently disruptive pass rusher. Gang Green could use a Clay Matthews-type coming off the edge, and the energetic Reed shares many of the same qualities that the Packers’ All-Pro possesses, right down to the long blonde locks sticking out of his helmet.
31) Pittsburgh Steelers: Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, Temple — Expect the Steelers to focus on adding reinforcements to both sides of the line in the draft. Age is a particular problem on the defensive front, as all three returning starters will be 33 or older next season and stalwart end Aaron Smith has played in just 11 games over the past two years due to injuries. Wilkerson has the prototype build for a 3-4 end and comes out of a Temple program that’s developed a reputation for churning out NFL-ready linemen in recent years.
32) Green Bay Packers: Torrey Smith, WR, Maryland — The reigning champs would like to come out of the draft with a pass-rushing counterpart to Matthews, so Reed would be an intriguing and useful choice if available. With Donald Driver now 36 and the Packers opting not to retain the drop-prone James Jones, finding a field-stretching receiver also figures to take precedent. Smith sports sub-4.4 speed and is also an outstanding return man, something else Green Bay could use as well.