The closer we get to the draft, still without a resolution to the NFL's labor woes in sight, the more I believe the Carolina Panthers have just one option with the No. 1 overall pick.
When all factors are accounted for, especially financial, and when considering the void that exists in Carolina at quarterback, drafting Newton ultimately makes the most sense on a number of levels. And let's not kid ourselves, this is a massive financial transaction we are talking about here, loaded with dollar signs and economic consequences far beyond any X's and O's.
As always, with a draft pick of this magnitude, there could be jobs ultimately at stake, both in football operations and on the business side of the organization. This could be a $55 to $60 million decision. The stakes are that high.
Newton might not be the most polished player in this draft, but when you factor the myriad variables -- cost, potential impact on the franchise in terms of wins and losses and the bottom line, the state of fan unrest, the current strengths of the roster, and the fact that Newton is clearly being considered -- he could provide a potential boost far beyond the other options.
A week from now, when the Panthers select, no one anticipates any salary rules being in place. This draft is an anomaly, because it will be conducted without a collective bargaining agreement. Teams don't know the rules under which these drafts picks will be signed, or have any inkling as to when they can be signed. They don't know the length of contracts. But I can assure you that there is a significant sentiment in all 32 front offices that teams might end up operating under 2010 rules, which means no rookie wage scale or other financial restraints.
In fact, it means another year of inflation with top-10 picks, which means that whoever gets taken first overall stands to receive a considerable bump over the $50 million guaranteed the Rams handed Sam Bradford last year. Let that settle in for a minute, and then mull the small-market status and 2-14 record with which the Panthers are trying to turn around.
So, I ask, even if LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson is the supposed "safest" player in the draft, when you size up the Panthers' roster, can one justify investing so much money on a corner who might be too big that he needs to shift to safety in a few years? Will that add the kind of victories per season Carolina needs? Could Peterson ever do enough to justify that sort of spending?
This has nothing to do with the Peterson's ability. It's a matter of positional bang-for-your-buck and the ramifications that carrying a $55-million defensive back could have building at other positions. Extrapolate this to any other 2011 draft prospect -- be it wide receiver A.J. Green or Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus or Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers or Texas A&M outside linebacker Von Miller -- and it looks more and more like the pick has to be a quarterback.
Could a team, without what most would deem to be an even remotely solid quarterback on the roster, justify making Green the highest paid player in NFL history, despite knowing they don't have anyone truly qualified to get him the ball?
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Ditto for a defensive lineman. First of all, those once considered the best options -- Nick Fairley and Bowers -- are no longer assured of even being selected in the top 10. Dareus, according to general managers I talk to, might be the safest pick of the bunch, but even then, could he definitely transition to the nose? And even so, if the team continues to struggle and still lacks a quarterback, could he ever be worth close to $55 million? Doubtful at best.
Newton's athleticism abounds. His run-pass options fit in well with the current talent assembled. He has been a winner at every level.
The Panthers know they have a solid offensive line and, when healthy, a formidable run game. The defense should be improved, and rookie coach Ron Rivera surely will feel like he and his staff can provide a lift on that side of the ball right away. But Newton can do things they could never teach, and Newton, if he develops over the next few years, could be worth much more to this franchise than any other option.
"If you think Newton can help you win games, and you're looking at having to pay this kind of money, and you need a quarterback, then you take the quarterback," one NFL general manager said.
Quarterbacks win and lose games the way other positions simply don't on a weekly basis. And, when successful, they also provide a vital entrée into streams of revenue that very few other players can. Think for a minute about the hope that can be engendered in a franchise, a city, a geographic region, just by a young quarterback experiencing a half-decent season.
A dynamic, young quarterback can put people in the seats. Anyone who caught a glimpse of the Panthers playing home games in November or December knows that reenergizing this fan base is imperative. They need an injection of belief.
A year ago, Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo's job security was of some debate after a 1-15 rookie season. That's why so many of his coaching buddies made the case to him that drafting quarterback last April was a no-brainer. Modest, incremental gains are easier for fans to swallow when they sense a potential franchise quarterback is throwing the ball. Suddenly, 4-12 in 2011 wouldn't look so bad, yet 4-12 with Dareus or Peterson or Miller or Green still would.
Even if Newton turns out to be more like Akili Smith than Bradford, the Panthers have purchased hope and, in all likelihood, a few years of good-will from the fans. They will sell tickets with Newton. A team that is now virtually anonymous will suddenly have a face and will instantly be among the most intriguing in the league. Charlotte is a banking and mortgage hub -- areas hit hard by the country's economic malaise -- and Newton's presence could help sell suites and luxury boxes in a way unlike anyone else in this draft, before he ever plays a game.
Newton's career arc will play out like a reality show, with diehard football connoisseurs and novices alike interested in its outcome. Suddenly, the Panthers are on national television with more of a national profile. They're a story every week.
And what if Newton pans out? Well, then, the Panthers are a competitor. They have a charismatic leader who draws people to him, as well as a franchise quarterback they so desperately need. They have one of the more formidable weapons in the game. They have picked the only player in the draft -- on field and off -- truly worth $55 million guaranteed. Even if brought along slowly and utilized in only certain packages and formations, there are ways to get him involved right away and not curtail his long-term development.
If you don't think Newton can play the pro game, then so be it. If you think he is incapable from shining at this level, that's a fair argument. But from what I've gathered, that's not the case when it comes to the Panthers and the hundreds of hours they have invested in this arduous, franchise-altering process.
In which case, take the player who could most alter your franchise -- in the standings and on the ledger sheet.