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Up in the Air

At the combine, scouts puzzled over the relative strengths of QBs Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert

It's been a strange post--Super Bowl period in the NFL, and the preparations for the 2011 draft have been no exception. At the scouting combine in Indianapolis last week, uncertainty reigned as college prospects ran through their typical drills and interviews under the cloud of the potential lockout. As for the draft itself—which will take place on April 28--30 even if there's a work stoppage—it has become clear that there is no consensus No. 1 pick, as there was with quarterbacks Matthew Stafford in 2009 and Sam Bradford last spring. With a potentially long and pitched labor battle ahead that could force teams to try to solve major roster problems through the draft instead of free agency or player trades (neither of which can take place until a new labor agreement is reached), there will be an added emphasis on picking pro-ready players over developmental projects. And the picture will be further muddied by the quarterback needs of nine teams in the top half of the first round.

The 2011 QB class, led by one-year Auburn phenom Cam Newton and Missouri spread-offense master Blaine Gabbert, will test the scouting prowess of teams in transition such as Carolina (picking No. 1), Buffalo (3), Arizona (5), San Francisco (7), Tennessee (8), Washington (10) and Minnesota (12); two other franchises, Cincinnati (4) and Miami (15), also might be tempted to take a first-round quarterback. "I could see Newton and Gabbert go anywhere between [Number] 1 and 12," said the coach of one of those teams last Saturday in Indianapolis.

Newton is the conundrum of this draft. When he stepped shirtless onto a platform to be weighed (a chiseled 248) and measured (6'5") last Friday at the combine, there was a buzz among the scouts, coaches and general managers watching that conveyed a single message: Now that's what an NFL quarterback should look like. On Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, employing some minor mechanical tweaks from passing coach George Whitfield Jr. (Ben Roethlisberger's technique coach), Newton struggled throwing the ball, completing just 11 of 21 passes against no coverage. But a bigger test will come in a longer Pro Day workout on March 8 at Auburn. Because he's making minor fixes rather than overhauling his mechanics, throwing is not going be Newton's issue. After passing for 30 touchdowns, running for 20 more scores and completing 66% of his throws at Auburn last fall, he's clearly an intriguing prospect who has the multiple skills more and more NFL teams treasure in their quarterbacks.

If only it were that easy. A collegiate vagabond, Newton was a backup to Tim Tebow at Florida in 2008 and was arrested that year in Gainesville for possession of a stolen laptop. (Charges were dropped after he participated in an intervention program.) For the '09 season he transferred to a Texas junior college. Later, a report on accused him of academic cheating at Florida, a charge that Newton shrugged off. Last fall an NCAA investigation determined that his father, Cecil, had asked Mississippi State boosters for $180,000 in exchange for Newton's enrolling there; Newton went to Auburn instead and denied any knowledge of his father's scheme. On the eve of the combine, Newton told SI, "I see myself not only as a football player but an entertainer and icon." The fact that he'd make such a statement at all, never mind as he was preparing for NFL job interviews, his every word scrutinized by the media, was stunning in a league that doesn't look kindly on a quarterback prospect with anything less than complete devotion to his craft.

"Totally turned me off," said the coach of one team that's in need of a QB.

"I can forgive the mistakes of an 18-, 19-year-old kid if they're isolated," said another coach whose team is scouting Newton. "But I'll be concerned about his focus. Is he in it to win, or will he be thinking about making the big highlight plays every week?"

The Panthers interviewed Newton over the weekend and plan to have him come to Charlotte for a more extensive predraft session. "I found him outwardly confident," said Ron Rivera, Carolina's new coach. "He took command of our room right away. We gave him a laser pointer and had him show us the protections and his reads, and he did well. As far as all the other stuff, we've got to investigate it, and we will."

Before the combine Newton told SI, "I'll be lying to you if I say I don't want to be the first pick in the draft. That's what I'm striving to be. With that Number 1 pick comes a lot of responsibility. They're going to demand you take your game to another level." On Saturday he said his remarks about being an entertainer and icon were misunderstood. But they'll clearly go into the hopper with everything, the good and the bad, as NFL teams evaluate him over the next eight weeks.

As for the 6'4", 234-pound Gabbert, he put up decent, if unspectacular, numbers in 2010—63% passing, 16 TDs and nine interceptions in 13 games—but might have an edge on Newton in defensive recognition, and their athleticism is similar. Gabbert also has no public pockmarks on his personal résumé. Then again, Newton achieved more in one year than Gabbert did in two as the starter at Missouri, and Newton had some great big-stage games at Auburn, including January's national championship victory over Oregon, as evidence that he can handle the kind of pressure he'll face in the NFL.

"Cam's offense [at Auburn] put him in position to run it a lot, and he was great at it," Gabbert said on Saturday night, after his individual team interviews were finished. "In ours the quarterback's job wasn't so much to run but escape pressure. You look at the quarterbacks in the Super Bowl, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers, and see how good they are at escaping pressure and prolonging plays. I think that's a strength of mine."

Gabbert and Newton are almost sure to be the first two quarterbacks off the board when the first round commences on April 28. Which order they go in might come down to how much risk a team is willing to take. On either man.

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Ready for Anything

Because a lockout means teams might not have the normal minicamps or training camps to help rookies prepare to play in their first year, scouts and G.M.'s are on the lookout for prospects well-positioned to play with minimal preseason preparation. The following are three top candidates to step into NFL lineups soon after a new CBA is signed.

Mike Pouncey C-G, Florida6'5", 303 pounds

Seems logical that the twin brother of 2010 Steelers rookie Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who started from Week 1 of training camp in Pittsburgh, would top this list. A tenacious downfield blocker, the former Gator should be drafted no later than 20th overall and start early in his rookie year.

Marcell Dareus DT, Alabama6'3", 319 pounds

The success of Ndamukong Suh, last year's No. 2 pick (10 sacks with the Lions), has every three-technique tackle prospect thinking he can dominate right away. But not many have the strength and drive of Dareus, who had 11 sacks over his last two seasons under Nick Saban. He can play end in the 3--4 or either tackle in the 4--3.

Julio Jones WR, Alabama6'3", 220 pounds

Jones will drop a few more balls than you want in a starting wideout, but he'll also block with the feral eagerness of Hines Ward. And with his 4.39-second 40-yard-dash time at the combine on Sunday, he showed he'll be able to stretch defenses immediately.


Photograph by TODD ROSENBERG

PASSING JUDGMENT Newton's outlook was as scrutinized in Indy as his shuttle time and accuracy.


Photograph by TODD ROSENBERG

RUNNING STRONG Gabbert, who didn't throw at Indy, may be a match for Newton in athleticism.


Photograph by TODD ROSENBERG