There's not an awful lot that Cam Newton hasn't accomplished in his junior season at Auburn. The Tigers, ranked No. 22 (AP) and No. 23 (USA Today) in the preseason, went 13-0 behind Newton's break-out season and now find themselves in the BCS National Championship game. Newton had a coming out party on September 25 against South Carolina (334 total yards, five touchdowns), blew up as Auburn flattened Arkansas three weeks later (328 yards, four touchdowns), and led a remarkable come-from-behind win over Alabama on November 26 that preserved his team's status as the top-ranked program in the nation.
By the time Newton got around to his 408-yard, six-TD performance in the SEC Championship game against South Carolina, he'd already emerged as the clear favorite for the Heisman Trophy, which he won a week later. Throw in a highly publicized pay-for-play scandal and soaring 2011 NFL Draft prospects, and Newton's pretty much covered all of his bases this season. All he needs is a national championship.
It's tough to understate Newton's statistical accomplishments this season, mostly because he shredded a tough SEC conference having only attempted 12 passes in his previous two seasons (where he, of course, sat behind Tim Tebow at Florida before transferring). Playing out of Gene Chizik's spread-option offense, Newton made his biggest plays as a runner, accumulating 1,409 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground this season. That's an incredible stat line for a young man that stands 6'6" tall and weighs in at 250 pounds.
The NFL - which has surely had its interest piqued by Newton's incredible play - is, however, more interested in Newton as a passer. Newton has shown a surprising amount of polish to this part of his game in his first extensive collegiate action, completing 67 percent of his passes, averaging 10.5 yards per passing attempt (he threw for 2,589 yards in the regular season), and sporting an impressive 28:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Auburn averaged 42.7 points per game in the regular season, and clearly, Newton's 48 touchdowns had a lot to do with that.
Newton hasn't said much about the possibility of entering the 2011 NFL Draft, but given the aforementioned controversy surrounding his father and his soaring draft stock, it seems likely at this point that Newton will test the NFL waters - particularly if Auburn handles Oregon on January 10. How early might an unpolished quarterback - a playmaker, to be sure, but still unpolished - be selected? Given his immense physical talents and enormous upside, he's already entering Top 10 discussions - and his ascent might not stop there.
Dan Kadar, who runs SB Nation's NFL Draft community, Mocking the Draft, currently lists Newton as the tenth-best prospect in the nation, and the second-best quarterback prospect behind Stanford's Andrew Luck. Something of a controversial prospect due to his sudden arrival on the scouting scene, Newton will likely get higher grades from NFL teams than Kadar's listing, while others will grade him lower.
Scouts will love Newton's size, mobility and arm strength, first and foremost. Talent evaluators don't like big guys just because they're big; they like big guys that use their size well. Newton has proven, even in limited exposure as a passer, that he has the stature and pocket awareness to avoid pressure and make passing plays on the move. His arm strength is outstanding, and while he needs some work mechanically (and lots of reps) to become more consistent with his ball placement, he's got the raw passing tools to eventually make every NFL throw.
Newton will get compared to mobile quarterbacks, but his playmaking ability is reminiscent of a more athletic Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben has made a career out of avoiding pressure, either by letting defenders bounce off him or maneuvering around them, and making something out of nothing. Newton has that type of playmaking ability, but he's obviously a better natural runner than Roethlisberger. While the comparisons he'll inevitably draw to a mobile quarterback like Michael Vick aren't accurate, he's going to extend a lot of plays at the professional level like Roethlisberger or Josh Freeman. That's a rare commodity among quarterbacks.
NFL personnel men will undoubtedly pause at Newton's lack of experience. Factoring in the title game, Newton will have only made 14 starts in college, and in general, NFL teams - neurotic about avoiding dreaded "bust" prospects - will favor more experienced players to younger guys with higher upside. Experience means more than playing time, as well. Chizik's offensive system is nothing like a standard NFL offensive scheme, not just in terms of style, but in terms of the reads necessary to execute a competent passing attack. A smart NFL team, in playing Newton, will limit its offensive system and play to Newton's strengths, but Newton will still have a ton to learn in terms of setting up protection schemes and diagnosing blitzes and coverages. Scouts won't like that in taking a player so early.
Clearly, his maturity will be questioned with the pay-for-play scandal still rearing its ugly head. Add in his rough departure from Florida - a time period that involved a cheating scandal and felony charges stemming from a stolen laptop - and suddenly, his collegiate offensive system and his lack of experience against top competition look like blips on the radar. Each NFL team interested in Newton (and some that aren't) will dedicate a great deal of time to background checks on Newton's personality, his relationship with his father, Cecil, and his locker room attributes. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Newton is still just 21 years old. Newton has been lauded as an excellent team leader, but there is certainly a lot of research to be done on this front.
Where Might Newton Land?
Any NFL team with a need at quarterback - that's the vast majority of them - is going to do more than just due diligence on Cam Newton. The 2011 NFL Draft order is two weeks away from being set, and the fact that a good half-dozen teams will be making coaching changes has an effect on the situation, as well. Newton has a fantastic chance at going in the Top 10, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if he sneaks into the Top 5 and gets serious consideration from the one or two worst teams in the league - even if Luck goes pro. Newton's just not a lock to be an immediate starter, whereas Luck - who's played in a pro-style offense - might be.
There are several NFL teams - Carolina, Cincinnati, Arizona, Buffalo, Minnesota, San Francisco, Seattle, Miami, to name a few - that could do a lot worse than adding Newton with a first-round pick next April. If Jake Locker taught any quarterback prospect anything, it's to capitalize on your draft status when the opportunity is ripe. Even with his flaws and need for patience from whichever pro team he ends up with, Newton has elite potential - and that'll make him a lot of money should he make the smart decision and bolt from Auburn.