The Panthers selected Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft last night, gambling the Heisman Trophy winner will overcome questions about his character and work ethic to become a franchise quarterback.
A year after going 2-14 with the NFL’s worst offense, the Panthers bypassed safer choices for Newton, who dazzled in his only season playing major college football.
At the draft headquarters in New York, Newton said he got a call from new coach Ron Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney just before the selection was announced.
“It was like a shock went through my body,’’ said Newton, wearing a blue Panthers cap. “I’m just blessed . . . I can’t wait to get to my new hometown of Charlotte.’’
At 6 feet 5 inches and 248 pounds, Newton combined brute strength to barrel over defenders on the run with a strong, accurate arm. He accounted for 50 touchdowns, a 14-0 record, won the Heisman Trophy, and led the Tigers to the national championship.
But Newton carries baggage and questions, making him likely the riskiest pick in Carolina’s 17 seasons.
The College Park, Ga., native started college at Florida but left amid reports he was about to be disciplined for academic cheating. That came after an 2008 arrest involving a stolen laptop, a charge that was later dropped when he completed a pretrial intervention program for first-time offenders.
A Mississippi State booster later claimed Newton’s father tried to get the Bulldogs to pay $180,000 for his son to play for them. Newton ended up at Auburn and was dominant despite an NCAA investigation that eventually determined Newton didn’t know of his father’s pay-for-play scheme.
After months of research, Rivera set up one final meeting with the quarterback last weekend in Atlanta.
“That’s when I felt very, very good that this young man is the kind of guy we’re looking for,’’ Rivera said.
But character questions aren’t the only issues with Newton. He played in a simplified spread offense at Auburn in which he was always in the shotgun and had few reads to go through. Several draft pundits have questioned Newton’s work ethic.
Yet the Panthers, who last took a quarterback in the first round when they selected Kerry Collins fifth overall in their inaugural season in 1995, have been vocal in their need for a major upgrade under center. They are confident he can develop into a mobile, dual-threat QB such as Ben Roethlisberger or Michael Vick.
“As far as my character, that’s something that hits home to some degree but I didn’t dwell on it as much,’’ Newton said. “People just having the wrong impression of the person that I really am. That’s something I can change with each decision I make on a daily basis.’’
Run on quarterbacks The second quarterback drafted wasn’t Blaine Gabbert, as was expected. Jake Locker took that honor.
The Titans used the eighth overall pick on the big Washington senior, replacing Vince Young. They selected the 6-2 Locker after scouting him at the Senior Bowl, the NFL Combine, and his pro day at Washington. Tennessee also scheduled a private visit and then brought him into Nashville for another meeting.
Gabbert, the Missouri junior, went two picks later to the Jaguars, who moved up six spots to take him. Jacksonville gave the Redskins a second-round pick as part of the swap of first-rounders (Washington took Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan with the 16th pick).
The 6-4 Gabbert, the first quarterback drafted by the Jaguars since Byron Leftwich in 2003, will compete with David Garrard for the starting job.
Picking fifth, the Cardinals looked like they might take Gabbert to fill their big hole at quarterback, but instead went for LSU cornerback and special teams standout Patrick Peterson.
The fourth quarterback to go in the top 12 was Florida State’s Christian Ponder, by Minnesota.
Falcons move up for Jones The Falcons made a bold draft-day trade to select Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones, who will pair up with Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White and give quarterback Matt Ryan another big target.
Atlanta acquired the No. 6 overall pick from Cleveland last night for a package of five picks, including the Falcons’ No. 27 overall pick this year and the team’s first-round pick in 2012. The Browns also acquired the Falcons’ second- and fourth-round picks this year and fourth-round pick in 2012.
Cleveland traded No. 27, as well as the 70th overall pick, to Kansas City to move up to No. 21, where they selected Baylor nose tackle Phil Taylor.
Goodell feels fans’ ire Goodell was booed by fans when he opened the draft and again when he announced Newton as the first overall pick.
Goodell welcomed the fans packing Radio City Music Hall and said, “Let’s get back to some football. The 2011 NFL draft is officially open.’’
Fans responded by chanting, “We want football!’’
Before the draft Goodell mingled with some fans in the lobby, chatting and posing for pictures.
Even before he officially got the draft started, he was greeted by boos by many of the fans and the “We want football!’’ cries.
Goodell smiled and said, “I hear you.’’ As the chants grew louder, Goodell said, “I agree. I’m with you.’’
Barber: Not about money Tiki Barber insists his attempt to return to the NFL after four years in retirement is not about money.
The 36-year-old former running back surprisingly retired in 2006 to pursue a broadcasting career. Then, just as surprisingly, he decided to give the NFL another shot.
He asked the Giants to take him off the reserve-retirement list. The Giants said they will release him once the league allows it.
Last year, the New York Post reported Barber was broke and couldn’t pay his divorce settlement with his ex-wife.
“It has nothing to do about the money,’’ Barber said yesterday. “I made a lot of money when I was playing. I made a lot when I was not playing in the media world. I need something to focus on and be excited about.’’