Based on what I heard this past weekend, there's a growing skepticism among NFL coaches, GMs and scouts that Carolina chooses quarterback Cam Newton with its first draft choice.
Yeah, I know, never trust anything you hear in the week prior to the draft. I usually subscribe to that axiom. Only it seems as if there are so many people convinced that Carolina goes in another direction that I'm beginning to wonder where the Panthers go with their first pick Thursday.
The arguments are familiar. Only now you hear them everywhere:
• Carolina wouldn't spend its first pick on a quarterback this year because it spent its first pick last year on the same position. Besides, the Panthers have a raft of other needs.
• Button-downed owner Jerry Richardson might not endorse the flamboyant and outspoken Newton, the subject of an NCAA investigation and the guy who said he wants to be the NFL's next "icon" and "entertainer."
• Newton is a risky choice in a spot where you don't take chances.
• The Panthers just hired a defensive-minded head coach who takes over a club that ranked 26th in points allowed and last in point-differential and who, at his introductory news conference, said, "I want to get back to tackling."
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That sounds like someone who might be more interested in Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus or Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller than a quarterback.
Furthermore, one scout I trust told me Carolina was desperate to trade out of the top spot, hoping to acquire the second-round draft pick it doesn't have, saying he heard the Panthers "want to deal out of that spot and want it bad." Pardon me, but that doesn't sound like someone that is fixed on Cam Newton.
The problem is that there's no consensus on Newton: You either like him, or you don't, and there are a lot of people out there who don't. The only question, of course, is whether Carolina is sold on him, and I wish I could tell you. I can't. But I can tell you I know plenty of NFL execs and coaches who think the Panthers don't pull the trigger.
I keep hearing them question if Richardson would sign off on the deal, especially after Carolina spent its first pick last year on quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Now, let's be honest: Clausen stunk. But so did the rest of the team. Plus, he was playing with a shuffled offensive line, rookie receivers and a club that sank faster than the Lusitania.
"Funny thing," said one NFC general manager, "but Richardson might be OK with Newton because he could be looking at 40,000 empty seats. If he thinks he (Newton) can put people in the stands, he might push for him. But he would have to swallow hard."
Drafting Newton would be an admission after only one season that Clausen is a bust, and nobody is convinced that Carolina GM Marty Hurney is willing to do that. Not yet. More to the point, they say Hurney is one of Clausen's supporters.
But there's a new head coach in town, and that's former San Diego defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. Having been in the same locker room with Philip Rivers the past four seasons, he knows the value of a franchise quarterback. But the Chargers had a conviction about Rivers when they acquired him. A growing number of people believe Carolina lacks a similar conviction about Newton.
If so, it's understandable: Newton had one season of success at the Division 1-A level. Granted, it was an extraordinary season, with undefeated Auburn winning the national championship, but let the record show that he threw 280 passes at the major-college level (two years at Florida; one at Auburn), compared to Blaine Gabbert's 933, Tim Tebow's 995 and Sam Bradford's 893.
Let the record also show that he ran 285 times -- or more than he threw. In Newton's Heisman Trophy-winning season he averaged 20 passes a game and 18.9 rushes per contest, and that won't ... can't ... continue in the pros, where he will face bigger, stronger and faster defensive linemen.
"I'll tell you what scares me and what should scare Carolina," said one coach Sunday evening, "and that's that (Newton) never really developed past the 'JC' (junior college) level in terms of football knowledge. At Auburn, they let him do what he wanted to do. And that's because, athletically, the guy is a Hall of Famer. But in terms of what he knows about the game and how he plays it he's still at a junior-college level."
Translation: He's not ready to step into the NFL and play immediately, and that's not what's supposed to happen to No. 1-draft picks. I know, Cincinnati did it with Carson Palmer, but the Bengals are the exception. The Bengals also had Jon Kitna as a safety net and a mentor for Palmer. The Panthers have no such veteran.
"If you're asking me," said one scout, "I don't believe they take him."
I'm not sure. Let's put it another way: I'm less sure now than I was last week.