The Carolina Panthers (3-8) hit the jackpot in the 2011 NFL draft when they selected the Heisman-winning quarterback of the BCS National Champion Auburn Tigers, Cam Newton, with the No. 1 overall draft by virtue of having the worst record in the NFL.
Though 2010 was essentially a wasted year for the Panthers—owner Jerry Richardson purged the team of most of its 30-plus veteran talent, they did not have a strong draft and head coach John Fox was on his way out before the season began—it gave them the opportunity to pick first in April 2011, and they rolled the dice on a college quarterback who led the SEC in rushing just a year ago.
The Panthers selected Newton ahead of fellow first-rounders Jake Locker (No. 8/Titans), Blaine Gabbert (No. 10/Jaguars) and Christian Ponder (No.12/Vikings), as well as his top competition for offensive ROY honors, second-rounder Andy Dalton (No. 35/Bengals).
Panthers Wanted Luck
When the Panthers ended the 2010 season with the NFL's worst record at 2-14, most expected Carolina to draft Stanford's Andrew Luck.
Luck is regarded by most NFL talent evaluators and analysts as the most sure-fire prospect and NFL-ready quarterback since another Stanford alum, John Elway, was taken first overall in the 1983 draft by the Baltimore Colts.
However, when Luck decided to stay at The Farm for his junior season, Newton moved up on the draft board, and the Panthers made him the first overall selection.
By all early indications, the Panthers had luck on their side when they selected Cam.
Newton is on pace to throw for nearly 4,500 yards in his inaugural professional year, and he may break just about every rookie passing quarterback record there is, including Peyton Manning's rookie-record 3,739 yards passing.
He has already rushed for a rookie-record 10 touchdowns in 11 games, and he could tie or break Steve Grogan's 35-year-old record for most touchdown runs (12) by a quarterback in a single season in the next couple of weeks.
Newton has also thrown 12 touchdowns, but his decision-making and accuracy are still works in progress, and his 14 interceptions are tied for the third-most in the NFL.
Dual Threat Quarterback
Rob Chudzinski has added a few plays to the Panthers' playbook to cater to Newton's running ability, including the zone-read option, but according to head coach Ron Rivera, Newton's dual-threat talent helps more in the passing game than it helps the run.
"The dual-threat, more than anything helps with the passing game. Where it does help the running game is with the option," said Rivera before adding, "My first concern with [Cam] would always be his ability to run as a passer."
Newton may be the beginning of a new breed of quarterback, paving the way for college standouts like Baylor's Robert Griffin, III, who can run as well as they throw and who can do both at an elite level in the NFL.
Better Than Advertised
It's hard to conceive of a player who had a season like Newton's historic year at Auburn coming into the NFL with low expectations, but many analysts looked at his proclivity to run as a negative quality and doubted his ability to excel in a pass-first, pro-style offense.
I never doubted Newton's talent, just his ability to grasp an NFL offense as quickly as any rookie quarterback who has ever played the game.
However, Newton, who passed for over 400 yards in his first two games and has already rushed for 10 touchdowns, is steadily working to prove his detractors wrong...and he is succeeding.
Long Way To the Top
If his season ended tomorrow, Newton would have one of the best statistical seasons ever by a rookie quarterback, but he still has a long way to go in his development as an NFL quarterback.
Smitty listed long-time Panthers signal-caller Jake Delhomme and Vinny Testaverde, who only played in seven games for the Panthers in 2007, as being ahead of Newton on his personal all-time list.
Smith's assessment of his quarterback teammates was not based merely upon physical talent, but on their ability to make plays for a long duration and the impact they had on his career.
"I have to be honest, I would say Jake [Delhomme] is No. 1 because Jake's career is over here in Carolina. Cam, he's been in the league for about 15 minutes.Vinny taught me some things to this day that I have at home on my nightstand. He taught me how to run some routes (from) all the guys he played with, Keyshawn, Wayne Chrebet, he played with some guys I grew up admiring. So that's why Vinny's No. 2 and Cam's No. 3."
Newton will likely surpass both Delhomme and Testaverde on both the Panthers' and Smith's best-quarterbacks list long before his career is over, but he has a long way to go before he becomes an elite player in this league.
Fortunately for the Panthers, he has the ability to do just that.
Is Newton a One-Year Wonder?
Just a few weeks ago, I attempted to answer the question about whether Newton’s rookie year is a failure, despite his gaudy stats. My answer was a resounding “No.”
Just as his season is not a failure, there is not a chance—barring injury—that Newton will be a one-year wonder.
First of all, I'm struggling with calling Newton a "wonder" of any kind this early in his NFL career.
Newton has had a remarkable rookie season, but he has thrown for more interceptions than touchdowns and I would not yet rank him as a top-10 NFL quarterback. That's hardly "wonderful."
However, Newton is immensely talented and has also only scratched the surface of the knowledge and experience he will gain in the next several years of his development as an NFL quarterback.
That he understands the game so well as a rookie in amazing, but his football aptitude is off the charts, and he will continue to improve for the next four or five years before he reaches his full potential.
Look for continued improvement from Cam for the rest of the year and don’t expect a sophomore slump next season.
Newton is no one-year wonder.
He is just getting started.