Should the Carolina Panthers tab Auburn star Cam Newton with the top pick on Thursday night -- and some league observers have suggested the club might be left with little choice other than to do just that -- it could be argued that the Heisman Trophy winner is the least experienced quarterback selected with the first overall pick since the common draft was implemented in 1967.
At least, according to several metrics.
Perhaps the most important: For all his athletic prowess, and undeniable physical tools, Newton has started only 14 games at the major college level. By comparison, among the subset that is regarded as the consensus top eight quarterback prospects in the '11 draft pool, the next fewest starts, by Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, is nearly double that.
The average for the other seven beyond Newton -- Andy Dalton (TCU), Colin Kaepernick (Nevada), Gabbert, Jake Locker (Washington), Ryan Mallett (Arkansas), Christian Ponder (Florida State) and Ricky Stanzi (Iowa) -- is 37.4 starts.
Given Newton's unique skill-set, the ability to lead teams to impressive heights and his potential to balance the playing field in a division that already features three "franchise" level quarterbacks, is that a detriment? While not specifically citing the enormously gifted Newton, some of the other quarterbacks who figure to go off the board in the first three rounds, and a few from past drafts, have acknowledged that experience in general is a key to expeditious NFL success.
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"It's a learning process," said Dalton, whose 50 college starts leads all quarterbacks in the 2011 pool. "The more times you drop back in the pocket, and are required to read defenses and go over progressions, the more comfortable it becomes. That's just natural, right?"
Said Ponder, who had 34 starts for the Seminoles, at the combine two months ago: "The passing game isn't quite about (rote), but there's some repetition factor there. It's like everything else: The more you do it, the better you become at it."
His mechanics aside -- and there are some draft analysts who regard Newton's arm strength and release and throwing motion as superior to some other quarterbacks selected in the first round in recent years (although not necessarily with the No. 1 overall selection) -- the former Auburn star hasn't dropped into the pocket or thrown the ball very much at the major college level.
In his only season as the Auburn starter, Newton finished with 280 pass attempts. Counting his star-crossed tenure at the University of Florida, Newton registered just 292 pass attempts. Newton recorded 285 rushes in college, and 264 of those came last season. That means that in his lone season as a starter in a big-time program, Newton averaged nearly as many runs (18.8) as passes (20.0).
Never in the history of the common draft has a quarterback been chosen with the top pick who had so few pass attempts in his college career. The closest two were Michael Vick and Alex Smith, the Atlanta and San Francisco choices leading off the 2001 and 2005 drafts. Vick had just 313 pass attempts in his career at Virginia Tech and Smith 317 passes at Utah.
Interesting is that Smith played in a similar same "spread"-style offense out of which Newton operated at Auburn, and has struggled in six seasons in the league.
Perhaps, given his rare skills, Newton can pull it off. But at the combine and even during his pro day, Newton exhibited considerable inaccuracy that for some NFL scouts nearly overshadowed his arm strength. Two points: The inaccuracy, for many talent evaluators surveyed by The Sports Xchange over the past week, may well be a factor of having such limited repetitions. And for most talent scouts, accuracy is at the top of the list of quarterback prerequisites.
"It's the No. 1 thing you look for," allowed Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli.
It should be noted that Pioli cited a quarterback's ability to avoid the rush -- an attribute Newton would appear to possess in large doses -- as the second-most essential component when evaluating a player at the game's most crucial position. But being able to buy time in the pocket with quick feet isn't exactly the same as pulling the ball down and running with it.
Just ask Peyton Manning, or Drew Brees, among current stars. Or, among Hall of Fame quarterbacks, how about Dan Marino.
"You've got to have pocket presence, pocket awareness, and that doesn't have much to do with running the ball," said St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford, the league's offensive rookie of the year in 2010 and last spring's top overall choice. "It's just something you develop, the patience to move a little bit here or there, and not to panic ... and you gain that by doing it."
Certainly there are plenty of questions swirling around Newton -- from the off-field allegations to a demeanor some have suggested is borderline self-absorbed to the concerns about his ability to quickly assimilate an NFL offense and to handle the verbiage that accompanies it -- but the lack of experience stands out to some.
"If he plays right away, there's going to be some on-the-job-training element to it," said an AFC general manager whose team is not in the market for a high-round quarterback this year, but who has studied the 2011 prospects closely because he might take one late in the draft as a developmental project. "And if he takes two or three years to be ready, well, you've paid a lot of money for the guy while he sits, especially if there is no rookie wage scale for this year."
The Panthers, however, are in a tough spot. The NFC South features Brees, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman, and Carolina doesn't have anyone close to that trio. As Carolina general manager Marty Hurney characterized things earlier this week, it has become "a quarterback league." Hurney seems to have come off concerns that he harbored about Newton a few months ago. Almost as important, he apparently has sold historically conservative owner Jerry Richardson about him.
Charlotte is a conservative city, but the Panthers have become nearly irrelevant in their own town, and Newton would rekindle interest. Even though Charlotte is in ACC country, the prospect of landing a high-profile SEC star might sell well.
Still, the inexperience factor cannot be totally ignored.
Even though a shoulder injury limited Bradford to just 69 pass attempts in 2009 -- after he forsook the opportunity to go into that year's draft in favor of returning to Oklahoma for another season -- the Rams' burgeoning star felt the decision was not only the right one but an advantageous one as well.
"The experience helps you mature as a player and a person," Bradford said. "It goes beyond just numbers."
For the numbers-crunchers, though, a few nuggets: Of the 18 quarterbacks chosen No. 1 since 1967, Vick and Smith were two of only four with fewer than 700 passes thrown in college. Five of the 18 threw 1,000 or more balls at the college level. The only quarterback from the group to rush for 1,000 yards in his career -- Newton ran for 1,473 yards in his only season as a starter -- was Vick. Only three quarterbacks rushed for 300 or more career yards.
Even in the college game, where yards lost to sacks are statistically counted against a quarterback's rushing total, that isn't a lot. In fact, five of the No. 1 quarterbacks finished their college careers with negative rushing totals.
The NFL pays for throwers, not runners, at the quarterback position. And while it would be tough to pass on his talents, it's indisputable that Newton hasn't thrown it very much. So little, in fact, that his attempts total could be historically low.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.