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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Tale of Newton tape tells good, not great impression

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The image on the screen in front of me taking a shotgun snap might have a smile you don't like, but that matters little for this story. The big, strong, quarterback on the screen fires a pass to an open receiver for a first down, and none of the possible off-field problems he has even enter my mind.

As I run the tape back and forth, slow and fast, there are no thoughts about Auburn quarterback Cam Newton having a supposed "fake smile" or his father asking for money from schools or his being in some academic scandal while at Florida.

This is simply football evaluation time.

Probing into his past, trying to get a feel for him as a person, is tough to do from miles away. That's what NFL teams do. That's why they pay top-notch security men to dig deep into these players' backgrounds with the tenacity of the CIA trying to find terror threats.

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In my limited time having contact with Newton, which came at the combine, I thought him to be a bit scripted, a bit like an Eddie Haskell-type from those old Leave it to Beaver shows. But that's not what this story is about. This is about Newton the player.

Can he make the throws?

Can he read the field?

Is he accurate?

How's his footwork?

Quite simply: Is he worthy of a first-round pick?

The answer is yes.

But the bigger question is whether he's worth being the top pick. On that one, I'd have to say no.

At the combine, I wrote a column saying how intrigued I was with Newton. Normally, mobile quarterbacks who move around and don't do most of their work in the pocket turn me off. Newton intrigued me from what I saw during the 2010 college season, one that ended with Auburn as national champion and Newton with a Heisman Trophy.

After watching him on tape, both sideline and end zone angles, he still intrigues me.

"No way I'd pick him in the first round," one NFC coach said. "He just doesn't do it for me."

"You see him on tape and you just think he has that chance to be the special one," an NFC general manager said. "He has that 'it' factor."

My analysis falls somewhere in between. Newton has skills, but he has a lot of work to do.

I watched Newton against Alabama, Clemson, LSU and in the BCS National Championship Game against Oregon. In all four games, he did some really good things. He also did a lot of bad things, showing sloppy habits and indecision.

Against Alabama, Newton struggled badly in the first half. But he was sensational in the second, rallying Auburn to a victory. The Tigers were down 24-0 late in the first half before Newton threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Emory Blake. With two receivers left and right of him, Newton took a shotgun snap. He faked like he would run into the middle, popped up, turned left, and with a simple flick of his wrist fired the strike to Blake for the score.

Later in that game, he made a throw for a 20-yard gain that really impressed. With Alabama in a two-deep zone, Newton took the snap in the shotgun and looked to the middle of the field. His quick look to the middle froze Alabama safety Will Lowery for an instant, and then Newton quickly fired a 20-yard shot to his right for a first down to receiver Darvin Adams. That one play showed Newton has the ability to read the coverage.

But he wasn't asked to do that a lot at Auburn. That offense isn't exactly an intricate passing attack. It had Newton throwing a lot of quick screens and quick reads, passes off fake reverses and passes off his faking like he was running into the line, like Tim Tebow did at Florida. There wasn't a lot of him standing in the pocket reading the field, but he did show more than Tebow did when I watched him last year and Newton seemed better at it.

Even so, that's still a concern for teams. How good can he be reading coverage?

One coach who put him on the board this spring said he was just so-so dissecting defenses, while other quarterbacks in this class were better.

In the Clemson game, Newton made some horrible throws that showed bad decision-making and mechanics. On one play, he threw off his back foot on a short roll to his right with pressure in his face, and his wobbly pass was picked off by Clemson safety DeAndre McDaniel. On a second interception, he tried to float a pass to a deep receiver who was open and the corner recovered to make a leaping interception.

That is something that stood out a lot when watching Newton. Even though he has a big arm, he had a tendency to try and float passes into areas. In college, he got away with it some. In the NFL, they will eat that up.

He did make a throw against Clemson that stood out. He took the snap, looked to his right and came back to the left to throw a bullet to Adams for a 35-yard gain. That might have been one of his best throws I saw.

In both the LSU and Oregon games, he had some good and bad. Against LSU, he made an amazing run for a touchdown, but he also floated a lot of passes that had danger written all over them. Against Oregon, he did some of the same.

Newton, as all young quarterbacks with good running ability are apt to do, has a tendency to get out of the pocket too soon. He seems to feel phantom pressure and just takes off. The ideal situation, and one he will have to adjust to in the NFL, is to step up away from pressure, not run from it. At 6-5, 250 pounds, he could run over tacklers if he didn't run around them. That doesn't happen in the NFL much.

He's a good runner, but he isn't Vince Young or Mike Vick in terms of being a running quarterback.

Newton does seem to keep his head up most of the time when he's scrambling, which is a good sign. That means he's scrambling to throw, not just to run. He doesn't just put the ball under his arm and do the Heisman pose. Young and Vick looked to run early in their careers, although Vick scrambles to throw more now.

So, by now, you want to know the verdict. Here goes: I like him, but not as much as some others. He has flaws, like all young passers do, but he's big, fast, strong and has a good arm.

He's also capable of turning his head and reading the field, even though he wasn't asked to do much of it. Mechanically, he needs work. The footwork will take time, but a good NFL quarterback coach will fix that. So will playing in a more NFL-friendly offense.

The Carolina Panthers have an interesting decision sitting in front of them. There is a lot to like, but there are a lot of concerns. I'll say this much: If I were making the decision, I'd pass. But I'll also add that the tape showed me that if Tim Tebow is a first-round pick, this kid should go somewhere in the top 10 based on the football evaluation. He's better than Tebow -- at least on the field.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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