The Cam Newton Experience, and more combine Snap Judgments
• I guess that was just Cam being Cam. The explanatory opening statement read rather stiffly. The multiple references to himself in third person: "Everyone knows Cam comes from a spread offense.'' And the Mark McGwire-like insistence that "the past is in the past.''
My first exposure to the Cam Newton Experience unfolded here Saturday afternoon, when I and few hundred of my closest friends in the media got our chance to interview the Auburn quarterback, Heisman winner and potential top pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
First impressions matter, of course, and Newton is undeniably smooth, loaded with charisma, and has whatever constitutes the "it'' factor. The young man has the demeanor of a rock star down pat. All of which will serve him very well indeed when he gets drafted high in the first round and immediately becomes the face of a quarterback-needy franchise.
And Newton deserves credit for taking partial blame for his damaging "entertainer and icon'' quote earlier in the week, saying it was his fault for not making himself clear that he was talking about being an ambassador for the product he was endorsing. He didn't blame anyone else or fall back on the tired claim that he was taken out of context.
But Newton's work is far from done, and his combine news conference, while fascinating theater, probably won't make much of a difference when it comes to his draft stock. What he has to do is sell himself successfully to at least one NFL team, and convince that club's decision-makers that his obvious talent and potential far outweighs his limited playing experience, the non-NFL offense he comes out of, and the personal baggage his image acquired during his eventful college years.
I talked to at least two NFL head coaches this week who have expressed concerns about Newton's relatively brief track record as a starter and his somewhat self-absorbed personality, but in fairness, it certainly sounds like new Carolina head coach Ron Rivera and the No. 1 Panthers plan on taking a long look at the Auburn star.
Newton might build a healthy amount of momentum for the top spot if he goes out and sparkles here on Sunday, when he and most of the top-tier quarterbacks plan on taking part in all of the combine's passing drills. He can do even more good for himself if he hits a grand slam in the team interviews here, and then follows everything up with a strong pro day showing on March 8.
Like Tim Tebow last year, Newton has a little of that draft Rorschach test feel to him. A lot of different people can see a lot of different things when they study him and his game. Some of it's pretty attractive, and some of it still needs some honing.
Newton certainly tried to undo some of the damage that he had done early this week, and at times he was convincing with his efforts to assure the media that football is his No. 1 priority, rather than the cult of personality or image-building. But even at that, he remains a work in progress.
"With Cam Newton or without, the NFL will be,'' he said, as if there was ever a doubt. I know what he meant. But it didn't sound quite as humble as he probably wanted it to. That could just be Cam being Cam, but maybe only time, and what he does and says from here on, will really tell.
• If nothing else, Newton's media appearance went far better than the train wreck turned in by Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett, who took the podium shortly before him. Mallett repeatedly refused to answer questions about rumors regarding his drug use in 2009, but eventually sounded like a conspiracy theorist when he said of the story: "Obviously someone did that for a reason, right before the combine.''
Mallet said he would discuss the issue with NFL teams if they asked him, but refused to confirm or deny any part of the allegations to the media, adding only that "When I saw that stuff, I laughed about it.''
Mallett's inconsistency and on-field decision-making is also an issue with NFL scouts, and when asked whether that criticism was deserved, he again turned defensive rather than accepting any validity to the premise.
"Seven thousand-plus yards (passing) and 60 touchdowns in two seasons, that's how I respond to that,'' Mallett said, shortly before leaving the stage rather abruptly.
NFL scouts already question whether Mallett's maturity level is up to the standard they look for in potential franchise quarterbacks, and Saturday's tense exchange with reporters won't lessen that perception at all. One league insider told me he could see Mallett slipping into the third round easier than he could see him rising into the first round.
To be clear, Mallett doesn't have to answer reporters' questions if he doesn't care to. But if the combine is one big job interview for NFL hopefuls, Mallett clearly flubbed one small part of it, and failed to exhibit the grace under pressure that league talent evaluators look for in a quarterback.
• After it took Ndamukong Suh all of about 14 minutes of his rookie season to become one of the NFL's most dominant defenders, it was inevitable that this year's scouting process would partly be focused on the search for the next Suh. Stop me if you've heard this one before, but the NFL is a copycat league.
Suh went second overall to Detroit last year, but for the first time since Dan "Big Daddy'' Wilkinson was taken at No. 1 by Cincinnati in 1994, a defensive tackle could wind up leading off this year's NFL Draft. But don't just assume Auburn's Nick Fairley is the only possible name you could hear called in the draft's pole position. Because Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus is right there with him or even rated higher in the eyes of some NFL talent evaluators.
Scouts have said Fairley's upside might be higher, but that Dareus is a more polished and finished product. Former Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp, now an NFL Network analyst, recently called Dareus the draft's best defensive tackle prospect, and said Fairley's technique is subpar. Dareus said he liked the sound of that, but it meant little.
"I love Warren Sapp,'' he said. "Watching Warren Sapp really made me play football. I really look up to him as a person and a player. But I'm not playing that any attention. I like that Warren Sapp thinks that highly of me, but I'm going to go out here and try my best and the teams have got to decide. It's really not his decision. But it's good to be recognized by him as the best 3-technique (tackle).''
Dareus did attempt to differentiate himself from Fairley in one potentially key department: On-field comportment and demeanor. Fairley has been consistently penalized for late hits and somewhat dirty play.
"I describe myself as a nice guy,'' Dareus said. "I'm a real nice guy. Everybody I tackle I pretty much help 'em up. I'm coming after you the next play. But I'm a nice guy most times. I like to have fun with the game.''
• Cal defensive lineman Cameron Jordan was certainly one of the most impressive prospects to take the podium in the media room at the combine this week. Heck, he even correctly used the word "plethora'' twice in answering questions from reporters.
But he didn't get a perfect grade when it came to his vocabulary. Asked what his strengths are, Jordan, the son of former Vikings tight end Steve Jordan, said: "I'm really explosive off the line. I'm great at lockout. And with lockout, I can control my man, shed and make plays in the backfield.''
Someone in the NFLPA needs to pull Jordan aside and inform him that it's not the best time to be throwing the phrase "lockout'' around in casual conversation.
• Jordan's dad was a pretty good NFL tight end in Minnesota, but the odds of the younger Jordan making it to the NFL Draft apparently weren't all that great early on.
"Growing up, I was more of a basketball guy,'' said Cameron Jordan, when asked if his father had helped him with his football technique. "My mother wouldn't let my father put me in football until I was in eighth grade. And that's what I thought I was going to be (a basketball player). Technically, I thought I was going to be the next AI. But I don't think I have the frame for that. I think I'm a little bit bigger than he is. I thought I was going to be Kevin Garnett. But that didn't pan out as well. Football suits me.''
• Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward talked movingly of his father, the late Craig "Ironhead'' Heyward, the former Saints and Falcons running back. Heyward is one of the many first-round defensive line prospects, and his bloodlines can't possibly hurt his cause.
"I can't follow it,'' Heyward said, of his father's legacy. "It's his legacy. I want to be in the NFL, and he was there. But I want to leave a legacy of my own. I don't want to live in his shadow. He was a great player and he's always in my heart. I appreciate everything he's done. But I want to do everything by my own. I'm not asking anybody to give me a second look or anything just because my dad was 'Ironhead.' ''
And then, with perfect comic timing, Heyward applied the punch line.
"They all know (in the NFL) I have a big head just like him,'' he said, cracking up the media throng.
• Between Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan, USC tight end Jordan Cameron, Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward, and Louisville tight end Cameron Graham, this is a multi-Cam combine, and I'm not talking about the ever-growing amount of technology the NFL Network uses to televise the proceedings.
The mind boggles at the thought of Cam Cameron being involved somehow in the drafting of any of this year's Cams and Camerons.
• Potential first overall pick Da'Quan Bowers of Clemson has heard the draft analysts who label him a one-year wonder, and he gets it. The junior defensive end led the nation with 15½ sacks last season, but it was his only big year at Clemson.
"My first year (in college) I didn't have a great year, but I wasn't playing a whole lot,'' Bowers said, after admitting he wants to be the draft's No. 1 pick. "My sophomore year, I had a pretty decent year. I had pretty decent numbers and injuries hampered a couple of my games. This year, I turned it up. I was starting full time. I knew the defense. I had been in the system two years. I felt comfortable. I had one good year, and the rest were considered busts.''
• It seemed like a big-time pass-rushing prospect walked through the doors of the media center about every 30 seconds on Saturday. And that's not just my opinion. Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli stopped by and raved about the depth of this year's draft class in that key department.
"Three-four defensive ends or outside linebackers, it's a strong class,'' Pioli said. "Regardless of the defense, there's plenty of players who can help every defensive line in the NFL at those positions. And really, some of those guys who have had their hand in the dirt, we haven't seen them drop (into coverage). This is a critical time to work those players out. Not that you're going to know everything about them, but you've got to look at them, see what their physical skills are.''
Between Bowers, Texas A&M outside linebacker Von Miller, Missouri defensive end Aldon Smith, Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn, and Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, proven pass rushers abound in this year's draft.