Cameron Jerrell Newton is an enigmatic figure.
Cam Newton was drafted by the Carolina Panthers as the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. There is no doubting Newton's talent on the field. However, there is also no doubting that he had one of the most storied college careers off the field in recent memory.
Newton had his good moments, such as being recruited to Florida as a 4/5-star player, winning a national championship and ultimately being the Heisman Trophy winner for the 2010 season.
He also had his bad moments, however. Newton transferred to Binn College—out of Division I football—after being suspended by Florida for stealing another student's laptop. Another brief—one day—suspension followed during his days at Auburn over concerns about his eligibility.
What is often overlooked in the Cam Newton story is his time at Florida. Newton was the backup for a certain Tim Tebow during his year-and-a-half with the team. He only managed to get on the field sparsely, appearing in only six games during his time there.
I have no doubt, however, that Newton's time as part of Urban Meyer's system benefited his latter years in college. Newton spent every day at practice watching someone who could potentially be the greatest college player ever at his position, as well as being part of the best college football program at the time.
This is a blueprint that should be repeated by the Carolina Panthers at the professional level.
While the Panthers don't have a player with the stature that Tebow had at the time—and respective level—ahead of him, they do have Jimmy Clausen.
Clausen struggled during his rookie season but what should be noted is that he was a rookie that was part of a poor team. Clausen didn't have the comfort of a guy like Joe Flacco or Mark Sanchez during his rookie season. He was under pressure to perform instantly. Clausen will have learnt a lot from his first season.
While Clausen is obviously not the answer in the long term, he is better suited to start for the Panthers in the short term. The longer this lockout lasts, the shorter preparation time that teams will receive. This is vital for rookies—especially rookie quarterbacks.
Cam Newton will need extensive work before he takes a snap in the NFL. The equivalent of a training camp and preseason will have to be created by Ron Rivera and his staff. This is going to be extremely difficult and that is without considering the potential for a holdout from Newton.
Newton has been compared for his play on the field to Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman. The Panthers should follow in the Buccaneers' footsteps as they approach this season. Freeman did not start instantly despite being the 17th overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft.
The Buccaneers didn't have a proven quarterback at that stage either. Byron Leftwich was blatantly not a starting-caliber quarterback anymore while Josh Johnson threw eight turnovers in his four starts before Freeman took over.
Freeman had sat on the bench until Week 9 of the season. The Buccaneers purposely brought him in after the bye week in order to prepare him as much as possible for his first start. The Panthers bye week comes in Week 9 next season, before a home game with the Tennessee Titans. This looks like the perfect situation for the team to give Newton his first NFL snap.
The Panthers have a solid running game but lack any sort of consistent production from their receivers. Jeremy Shockey is not Kellen Winslow and won't give the team a reliable option without more talent around him. The Panthers are set to struggle whether Newton starts or not. This is not a Sam Bradford in St. Louis situation.
If Newton starts, he could take a beating—the same beating that Jimmy Clausen took last year. Clausen was sacked 33 times in only 10 starts last season; Newton's confidence and greater ability with his feet will cause him to be hit even more than that. He may be better built to absorb hits from NFL linebackers than Clausen, but why unnecessarily expose him to that risk?
Not many teams move from last in the league to a Super Bowl in just one season. The Carolina Panthers would be smart to sacrifice short-term mediocrity and iconic excitement for future success.
Benching Newton certainly doesn't guarantee that success but it would definitely give the franchise a better chance at rebounding from last season's failures.
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