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Newton makes headlines; Gabbert garners teams' attention

INDIANAPOLIS -- Cam Newton has gotten the attention, but Blaine Gabbert will be the first quarterback drafted. Every personnel man I spoke with at the NFL Scouting Combine thought Newton was more of a project, who needs time and coaching to develop. Gabbert is far more refined on and off the field, based on the majority of opinions.

One scout told me Gabbert throws about as good a pass as there is and that arm strength isn't an issue. Sometimes he relies on his arm strength too much and loses focus on fundamentals, but that probably could be said about a lot of quarterbacks taking snaps in the NFL right now. Of course, Gabbert didn't throw at the combine.

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The only real question will be how Gabbert operates from under center, having played in a spread system at Missouri. His pro day will be important because scouts want to see his footwork and how he handles being under center. Those were the same concerns (other than injury history) that coaches, general managers and scouts had about Sam Bradford last time this year. We see how that worked out.

When it comes to Newton, he's going to get drafted in the first round -- maybe even high in the first round. However, the feeling is that he'd be best served not to start immediately, with the way Tampa Bay brought along Josh Freeman two seasons ago as the model. Freeman, one of the rising stars in the league, didn't start until Week 9 of his rookie season in 2009.

Pro days a no-go?

Alabama's Julio Jones, Oregon linebacker Casey Matthews, South Carolina tight end Weslye Saunders, and Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy could miss their pro days in the next few weeks because of injuries.

McElroy had a cast removed Monday from his right (throwing) hand he fractured at the Senior Bowl, but he told me that he won't be able to throw until later this month or in early April.

Matthews injured his left shoulder doing bench presses at the combine and is hopeful he'll be able to work out but isn't sure. He told me his left shoulder, which he hurt as a freshman, subluxed while he was lifting. He doesn't think surgery will be required.

Jones definitely will miss his pro day because he broke a bone in his foot and will be out of action for more than a month. Saunders sustained a similar injury and, like Jones, discovered it when he underwent X-rays at the combine. Both players went through drills, with Jones completing his. Saunders had to back out after the vertical and broad jumps and was scheduled to have surgery this week.

Saunders said his foot fracture, which he guessed was sustained while training for the combine, was similar to the one suffered by 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree when he was getting ready for the combine in 2009. The inability to showcase himself for scouts and coaches could really impact Saunders' draft status. He didn't play last season after being kicked off the South Carolina team for receiving improper benefits from an agent -- both red flags for anyone interested. Now he has an injury red flag, too.

Saunders is considered a big-time talent but might have to work his way up through the back end of the draft to prove it.

Combine news and notes

» The Carolina Panthers, who have the No. 1 overall pick, aren't leaving a stone unturned. Coach Ron Rivera said they've got seven to 10 players they're considering -- one being Newton -- but they are scouring every prospect who might be able to help later in draft, even kickers. The Panthers have no idea who they will take with the top selection, but I was given the impression that they won't trade the pick.

» One player we will start hearing more about is Missouri defensive end/outside linebacker Aldon Smith. The 6-foot-4, 263-pounder's length, range and productivity -- 17 sacks in 23 games -- have personnel guys excited. So does his versatility. Though he has the specs of a 4-3 end, he has the athleticism and pass-rushing ability to play as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Depending how he is used, he could also play as an interior rusher from the linebacker set from time to time.

Smith entered the draft after his redshirt sophomore season and is just 21, but I didn't hear much talk about him not being physically or mentally ready to step in and play immediately.

» St. Louis let safety O.J. Atogwe's contract expire, making him a free agent. Even though there is talk about bringing him back, that isn't the Rams' first choice, a league source said. They really like Atogwe and think he is a nice player, but they are trying to get more physical at the position and might try to find more of a thumper and playmaker.

That said, look for St. Louis to consider outside linebackers with some of their early picks in the draft.

» Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan's impressive workout has some people wondering if he might also fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Kerrigan (6-4, 267) said some teams plan on putting him through outside linebacker drills at his pro day, but he still projects better as a 4-3 defensive end in the mold of former NFL stud Patrick Kerney.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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