Charismatic, controversial Newton on Panthers' Rivera's mind

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INDIANAPOLIS -- If the Carolina Panthers aren't going to draft Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the first overall pick of the NFL draft, then it appears that someone else is going to have to come from behind to land the coveted perch.

Newly-hired coach Ron Rivera did his best to try and keep things in generalities when speaking to the media Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine. However, he gave fairly glowing reviews of Newton and did not hide the team's interest.

Some samples:

» "We've got to go through the process," Rivera said. "We're going to have his workout, we're going to bring him in, obviously, and visit with him and go through the whole process to get a feel for what he does know, how well he'll learn ... he's not the only one."

» "You look at the type of quarterbacks that have been drafted (recently), the size of those guys, they're all big men," Rivera said. "Look at Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Cam's got those types of physical attributes. He's a tall, powerful young man. Great athletic ability. He might be a better athlete than all of them. He's got a great arm, and he's a winner. Go back to junior college and his college days, and you can't pass that up either.

"We've got to explore that. There are eight, nine, 10 guys we've got to explore. We've got to explore all avenues."

He also repeatedly stressed the team's need to find a franchise quarterback -- especially since Carolina's rivals in the NFC South all have good ones. The Panthers also never have had a franchise-type quarterback.

"I was talking with (Rams coach) Steve (Spagnuolo) a little earlier with that thought in mind," Rivera said about drafting a quarterback first overall, like the Rams did last season with Sam Bradford. "You should most certainly visit with people who've gone through the same experience and understand what they've gone through and what they had to do to make sure they got it right."

Rivera also said that with a rookie wage scale possibly coming with a new collective bargaining agreement, the top pick might not be as fiscally crippling as it has been, so keeping the selection is far more enticing because a key component could be added.

Recently, NFL.com's Gil Brandt, the longtime Dallas Cowboys personnel guru and one of the smartest people in the world when it comes to evaluating collegiate talent, said he'd be shocked if Carolina didn't take Newton with the first overall pick. Gil looks like he's onto something.

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Now, Rivera could have mastered the art of sending up a huge smoke screen in his first ever opportunity to do so as head coach. Getting a big-time pass rusher (they had one of those in Julius Peppers and let him walk) or a wide receiver (they really need some of those, too) are priorities, but those positions aren't crucial for a new coach or a franchise to build around.

A quarterback is. Raheem Morris and the Buccaneers, Mike Smith and the Falcons, John Harbaugh and the Ravens, and Steve Spagnuolo and the Rams proved that. That's why Rivera's point of acquiring a franchise quarterback -- he said Newton was one of seven to 10 players they've narrowed their focus on -- makes too much sense. Maybe Missouri's Blaine Gabbert is in that mix. Maybe Arkansas' Ryan Mallett is, too. Newton was the guy Rivera was talking up, though.

Teams need a good quarterback to win, and Carolina doesn't have one. Okay, Jimmy Clausen was put into a bad spot last season as a rookie, but unlike Sam Bradford, Matt Ryan, Josh Freeman, or Matthew Stafford, Clausen couldn't overcome a lot of the obstacles in front of him. Hence, the need to possibly use the first overall draft pick on Newton.

The Panthers also need something, better yet, someone to make them relevant. They have the top pick because they were awful last season. It looks like standout running back DeAngelo Williams will join former fan favorites Jake Delhomme and Peppers in playing elsewhere, and wide receiver Steve Smith doesn't seem to be begging to stick around, either.

Newton immediately makes them relevant. He's got the name. He's got the college resume. He's got the smile. He's surrounded by controversy. He's everything a team that really doesn't register needs. There won't be a shortage of conversation or attention paid to the Panthers if they went with Newton.

He's already the talk of the combine for his remarks to Sports Illustrated's Peter King. He said he wanted to be an "entertainer" and an "icon," and he's already being scrutinized for being a tad arrogant. I'm guessing he'll be a tad more humble, engaging and charismatic when he addresses the larger gathering of media in a few days. His exit image will probably be a little cleaner than his entrance.

I'm also guessing that, unless he completely gets the yips, he'll look good in his workout and leave the building with a very positive buzz. That's always good for a team contemplating drafting a quarterback with the first pick.

The big question with Newton comes down to his mental capacity. At least that's what people here are saying without saying it loudly. They want to know if he can read defenses and if he has another check-down besides running the ball. He'll be quizzed on that, and his character at the 15-minute speed-dating interviews teams have at the combine, then again at private workouts and again during other interviews.

Some people will be offended that Newton is being second-guessed about his smarts and wonder if teams will feel the same way about Missouri's Gabbert, Arkansas' Mallett or other quarterbacks on the board. Be clear on this: Teams have the same concerns about every quarterback.

That's because if you miss on a quarterback, you're back to where Carolina is right now. You hit, though, which the teams in the recent past have done in the first round, and you're in the mix, which is where Carolina isn't.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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