INDIANAPOLIS -- There seems to always be a major theme that dominates the draft talk before and after the NFL Scouting Combine. In my 25 years coming here, one player typically becomes the focal point. Buzz about this prospect usually differs so much that you have to wonder if scouts are watching the same tape. The difference of opinions is polarizing and no one is short of reasons why they are right.
Last year it was Tim Tebow, this time Auburn's Cam Newton is the hot topic. Newton, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner, has captured all the attention at the combine, some of which stems from off-the-field concerns, but most of the discussion is due to his play.
Like Tebow, Newton has strong supporters and equally vocal naysayers. There is no middle ground with Newton -- some love him, some hate him, but few have no opinion. After displaying his talents and talking to teams, Newton leaves Indy with more questions than answers.
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The first, and maybe the toughest, question that each team interested in drafting a quarterback must answer: Does Newton's skills fit the offensive philosophy of the team, or is he worth adapting a new scheme around?
We all know the 49ers desperately need a quarterback, so in theory they have to be one of the teams considering Newton. But should that be the case? New coach Jim Harbaugh wants to run the West Coast offense, which is not best suited for Newton's skill set. If their offense is not Newton-friendly, should the 49ers change or just pass on Newton?
Scouting Newton inside out will help answer that question. Teams that define what they want first, then determine if Newton can fit those parameters will make the evaluation process much easier. Newton, like Tebow, is not for everyone -- but he can be a fit somewhere. In fact, he might be special for the right team. The key will be getting endorsed at the highest level, not the scouting department. Scouts can talk about Newton's positives and negatives, but head coaches and offensive coordinators must accurately define the role he will play within the offense.
At this point, no NFL offense completely suits Newton. The same held true when Tebow was drafted. There are versions of offenses that could utilize Newton's talent, but there will need to be a modification around his strengths. These tweaks must come from a coach who totally buys into Newton -- his work habits as well as his talent. This Newton-centric offense might be a combination of plays that he can initially run effectively, and eventually have those plays morph into a complete offense. Much like what Pittsburgh has done for Ben Roethlisberger.
Ultimately, teams must decided if they are willing develop an offense that best fits Newton's talents and have the patience to wait for him to grow. Eagles coach Andy Reid drafted Donavan McNabb with the second overall pick in the 1999 draft with hopes of making him a West Coast quarterback. However, things did not take off until Reid developed an offense that took advantage of McNabb's skill set. Reid was a rookie head coach when he selected McNabb, and the Eagles were committed to rebuilding their team around the coach-quarterback duo. For Newton to be successful, he will need the same type of commitment.
Just as an organization must show its dedication, Newton has to be willing to go all in for a team.
For the next few months, JaMarcus Russell will be used as a comparison when evaluating Newton, which is really unfair. Newton is similar in size to Russell, but that is where the comparison can end. Russell never loved football, never loved being in shape, refused to work hard and refused to meet the Raiders halfway. Newton does show a passion for the game and is in great shape. He takes care of his body and was not afraid to compete on the combine stage.
Questions go beyond staying in shape, though. Interested teams must now determine if Newton is willing to make the mental and physical sacrifice to improve his game.
We all know Newton is a rare athlete -- he has a powerful arm, great size (6-foot-5, 248 pounds) and offers unique attributes as a quarterback. He came to the combine to display those talents and did not disappoint. He also showed that he is a raw talent who needs to work on his fundamentals in every aspect of the quarterback position. Those unrefined skills must be specifically developed and Newton has to be willing to work rigorously on his improvement. He must also be willing to accept coaching -- not getting offended as a coach strives for improvement.
The combine taught us Newton has talent, a great personality and is in great shape. However, before any team makes Newton a first-round pick with hopes of him becoming a franchise quarterback, an organization better correctly answer the remaining questions about him.