Think Big Ben when trying to project Newton's NFL impact

Some folks look at Cam Newton and see Vince Young or JaMarcus Russell, the former for his feet, the latter for his arm, and both for their size.

But George Whitfield, the man charged with preparing Newton for the 2011 NFL Draft, sees another quarterback he trained this year: Ben Roethlisberger.

And that comparison's validity could do as much to help the Heisman Trophy winner's draft stock as any workout or game tape, because if Roethlisberger proves anything, it's that successful quarterbacking doesn't necessarily have to be by the book. It takes no more than a simple glance to see that Newton is, most certainly, a little different than others who play his position.

"Roethlisberger is a more accurate portrayal of what Cam is than Daunte Culpepper or Vince Young. Those are just clichés, because it's the big African-American guy," said Whitfield, a quarterback specialist who worked Roethlisberger out during his suspension. "Physically, and style-wise, they're giants. Ben's over 6-foot-5, Cam's 6-6, they're both 250, they're both agile, both can play off the script. Cam can make an awful lot of throws, just like Ben. They're both as comfortable out of the pocket as they are in it.

"And they have that closing mentality. ... They both really have an understanding of how to close games."

Newton figures to be the 2011 draft's most polarizing prospect. But before all is said and done, he might also be considered its best player.

The reason why has to do with the evolution of the quarterback position, where it's going as a result of where it is at different levels of the game, and how a player like Roethlisberger has broken convention on how an offense is to be run.

The Steelers' quarterback isn't Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, and that's just fine with Pittsburgh. The idea for Newton is to find a team that's similarly accepting of a different style that, in the end, can be every bit as effective, even if it doesn't look as pretty.

"At the end of the day, when you're on the sandlot, there are a lot of things going into being a franchise quarterback," said one NFC personnel executive. "When you're on that sandlot, you need to be able to accurately hit your targets. However you do it, you have to be able to do it, whether you're Christian Ponder playing in a sideways-throwing offense, or Cam Newton in that spread deal.

"Then, for any of them that wants to be a franchise quarterback, it's the 'it' factor. Usually, you can see behind guys that have 'it' a group of men that have a confidence or swagger that says, 'We have a chance because of our quarterback.' Cam certainly has that."

What Newton has is a howitzer for an arm, the build of a freakish defensive end, the aforementioned swagger, terrific throwing mechanics and enough accuracy to succeed, both from a stationary position and on the run. What he lacks, really, is polished footwork and experience in a complex offense.

The first issue can be solved with work, and it's a large part of what Newton and Whitfield are working on in San Diego now. The second problem is harder to diagnose and, ultimately, scout.

"Reading defenses is an issue," said one AFC college scout. "I know he got a ton of respect in college. Defenses honored him, so he was seeing a ton of vanilla coverages. Defensive ends weren't crashing on him the same way they will in the NFL. He didn't face the pressure from the edge he will. And it was a bare-bones, basic offense he was running. There's not a whole lot to it, but because he's such a good athlete, there didn't need to be.

"That's not a knock. We're still trying to figure that part out on him. But it's tough with all those things to project him. It is a projection."

Whitfield describes Newton as an "active learner," someone as interested in the "why" as the "what," who has a thirst to improve and an aptitude for the game. He thinks, through the draft process, the quarterback's intelligence will shine through.

But it is, indeed, a projection. Because of the constraints of the 20-hour rule (teams are only allowed to put players through 20 hours of practice a week), college offenses have gotten simpler. Newton got less than a year to learn and run Auburn's offense, after arriving from Blinn College.

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Again, though, it's easy to see where he could bridge the gap. And the thought is that, even if he can't call out a defense at the line right away, he'll still be able to convert that third-and-6 like Roethlisberger so often can: Because he can buy time if the decision-making doesn't come as quickly.

"Ben buys time with his (athletic ability), his strength and his savvy," said the NFC exec. "After 3.5 seconds, the coverage is breaking down and it becomes backyard ball to an extent. Then, it's 'The X is going to this spot and the Y is going to that spot.' Now, arm strength comes into play, to get the ball on the run to that guy who's there wide open, and Ben does that, and I think Cam can. You convert big third downs that way.

"We're seeing more guys like that now, and everyone needs a quarterback. So instead of folding up your tent when you don't find Peyton Manning, you have to start looking at these guys."

And as much as Whitfield's training Newton to do things a Brady or Manning would, he's also trying to get the big man to accentuate his traits like Roethlisberger does. That means, in this case, Newton learning to use his feet not to break off the 60-yarder, but to create the type of scramble situation our executive described, which leads to the kind of big plays that are Roethlisberger's trademark.

Whitfield says his star pupil is taking a "coal miner's mentality" to his evolution as a quarterback -- "He's training like he's 5-10, 180 pounds and doesn't know if he'll get another snap of football" -- but in the end, Newton is who he is, which is a different kind of cat for the position. His coaches at Florida, Blinn and Auburn (and Newton will have to answer for the off-the-field stuff that forced the bouncing around) used him accordingly, and his coaches at the next level will likely have to do the same.

No matter what, the mental load will increase, and it's important to note that Newton hasn't been immersed in one offense for an extended period since high school, having spent a year and a half at Florida, a year at Blinn, and a year at Auburn. So in a way, a part of his capacity from that standpoint hasn't been tested.

"Cam is extremely bright, very assertive, and very observant," said Whitfield. "He wants to get this down. He understands why some big-time quarterbacks wound up out of the league, he led that conversation. He understands the guys who washed out basically flunked out. Their arms didn't fall off, they didn't shrink. It's attention to the classroom work, the playbook, and Cam understands that it has extended careers for guys like Kerry Collins, Marc Bulger and Matt Hasselbeck.

"And as for guys like Manning and Brady, that's the ultimate. Those guys put both together the mental and physical components. Cam understands that."

He's roundly considered a better prospect than Tim Tebow, because, while he does have the some off-field concerns, he doesn't have his ex-teammate's accuracy and mechanical issues. As the AFC college scout puts it, "Tim shouldn't have been a first-round pick. Cam's definitely a first-round pick."

And, again, Whitfield thinks Roethlisberger, the 11th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, is a better comparison anyway.

"Ben's a Hummer," says Whitfield, "and Cam's like the sport version."

Still, plenty of questions remain, beyond just the ones above.

Among them: Is he the genuinely good-hearted, normal guy that everyone at Auburn describes, or the immature kid who drew scorn at Florida? Is he ready for the fame that he suddenly has? And how quickly can he contribute?

Last week, to start answering all the concerns, he held a workout for the media in San Diego. He did it because the draft process is a long one, and he and Whitfield felt it was important to start getting out in front of things.

And if there's one thing certain, it's that Newton will have no problem getting an audience in the weeks to come.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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