Each year, ESPN The Magazine produces the "NEXT" issue, an annual look at the athletes that it feels will be the breakout stars in the not-too-distant future.
In the magazine, ESPN advises us that the faces in the "NEXT" issue are the ones to watch in 2012. But we've already spent the past four months watching Newton toy with opposing defenses, racking up ridiculous numbers in his wake.
This season, not only did Newton set the record for most passing yards by a rookie (4,051), but he single-handedly accounted for 35 touchdowns (21 passing, 14 rushing). Newton also became the first player in the history of the NFL to pass for more than 4,000 yards and rush for more than 500 yards in a single season.
Not bad for a player who was red-flagged by many teams as someone who would have difficulty grasping a pro-style offense.
Newton's play has already spawned a number of accolades, as well as his fair share of nicknames ("Superman," "The Black Clark Kent," "The Black Panther"). But while awards and adulation are all well and good, Newton has his eyes on the true prize.
"I want to be the symbol of success in this league," Newton said in an interview with ESPN. "I want to win multiple Super Bowls."
Even as a rookie, Newton realizes that true greatness comes with wins, and those will come over time. With two picks in the top 40 selections of the 2012 NFL Draft, the Panthers are in prime position to surround Newton with the talent that he'll need to make a lasting impact on the NFL.
But after amassing over 4,700 yards of offense with a team whose No. 2 and No. 3 receivers were Brandon LaFell and Legedu Naanee, it's fair to ask the question: Just how good can Newton be?
"I know I have the talent to change this game, and I don't see no ceiling," Newton said in an interview with ESPN. "So I'm not knocking on the door, like tap-tap-tap. I'm gonna kick that door in, like SWAT."
Newton's rookie campaign hasn't been without its fair share of missteps, but most of them have occurred off of the field. In an early December interview, he erred by referring to the Carolina Panthers as a "tarnished house where losing is accepted" and implied that teammates needed to get on his level of play.
In another interview with ESPN, Newton invoked the names of two other black quarterbacks in response to allegations that much of negativity surrounding him prior to the 2011 NFL Draft was fueled by race.
"I can't sit up here and look at it like, oh man, my critics are racist," Newton said. "I blame JaMarcus Russell and to some degree Vince Young. If you have the opportunity to make that kind of money doing something you love to do, why would you screw it up?"
For whatever reason, Newton inexplicably compared his situation to two players who have no discernible link to the former Auburn quarterback. The pre-draft criticism of Newton—whether thinly-veiled in racism or not—is in no way analogous to the self-inflicted damage Russell and Young inflicted upon themselves.
Fortunately for Newton, in today's attention span-deprived society, his comments will soon be forgotten. He will learn from these mistakes just as he learns how to attack opposing defenses each week during film study.
What's unfolding in front of us is the perfect case study in taking the road less traveled towards NFL superstardom. Thirty-six months ago, Newton transferred to Blinn College in Brenham, TX after being suspended by the University of Florida for being in possession of a stolen laptop. Today, he's the next big thing in the NFL.
Scratch that. Newton is already a big thing. And it's safe to say that his advice to his critics is the same advice he'd give to those who still aren't paying attention.
"Just sit back and watch the show."